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Public health officials backtrack on porn industry HIV cases

June 16, 2009 |  5:20 pm

Los Angeles County public health officials backtracked today on their statements last week that at least 16 unpublicized cases of HIV in adult film performers had been reported to them since 2004.

Despite their release of data to The Times describing the cases as “adult film performers,” the county’s top health official acknowledged that the agency does not know whether any of those people were actively working as porn performers at the time of their positive test.

Health officials also corrected upward, from 16 to 18, the total number of new cases reported by the Adult Industry Medical Foundation, a San Fernando Valley-based clinic that serves the porn industry, since a 2004 HIV outbreak and the revelation last week that a female porn performer had tested HIV positive. 

“We have no information on these individuals,” said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county’s health officer. “All we have is the number from" the foundation.

County public health officials said that they had mislabeled all reports from the clinic as adult performers when, in fact, information about their occupation is unclear. Although the clinic was created primarily to serve the porn industry, it also serves other clients.

Sharon Mitchell, the clinic’s co-founder, told The Times this week that none of the HIV cases cited by the county involved active performers.

“Here’s the bottom line: we’re an HIV testing center,” Mitchell  said. “We don’t just test the adult entertainment industry. We have a lot of people who come who want testing from the general public.”

Mitchell said she is familiar with all the HIV cases reported to the county. Each involved either a non-performer or an aspiring actor or actress who tested positive, then dropped out of the business, she said.

She said the female actress who tested positive for HIV at their clinic earlier this month remains the only case detected in a working performer since 2004. At that time, a male porn star and three actresses with whom he had performed all tested HIV positive. An unrelated transsexual performer also tested HIV positive at that time. The cases shut down production in Southern California's multibillion-dollar porn industry for a month.

Fielding said today that the county did little investigation of any of the post-2004 cases and have few details about the individuals, their partners or how they may have been infected. Mitchell, whose clinic settled a breach of privacy lawsuit brought by Darren James, the porn star at the center of the 2004 outbreak, said she could not release names or information because of privacy laws.

Fielding said the county does not have sufficient information to delve deeply into the cases

“The question is do we have the information to really permit us to?” Fielding said. “The system we have and the laws we have do not facilitate the kind of contact tracing and verification that we’d like to see. AIDS has been treated separately from other STDs.”

State laws currently allow the county to make partner notification for diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. In HIV cases, the responsibility for notification rests with the medical clinic or doctor, not the county, Fielding said.

Despite the confusion, Fielding said the number of sexually transmitted diseases among adult performers is high and that any cases of HIV are to be taken seriously.

“I’m sure that AIM provides a useful service to the degree that they prevent performers from performing when they have sexually transmitted diseases or HIV,” Fielding said. “Is what’s being done better than nothing? Absolutely. Is it what should be done and what is required in today’s world of occupational safety? Absolutely not. ... To have, in 2009, an occupational hazard that’s preventable and subjects individuals to life-threatening diseases is outrageous.”

-- Kimi Yoshino and Rong-Gong Lin II

Related stories:

Porn industry clinic takes anti-HIV steps

Porn star recalls nightmare of testing HIV positive

More porn HIV cases disclosed

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