National AIDS Trust calls out ‘inaccurate’ reports of HIV needle attacks by shoplifters

The executive chairman of Iceland Foods told the Daily Mail that staff had been infected with HIV by shoplifters.

A national HIV charity has hit back at an “inaccurate” story about HIV needle attacks by shoplifters, saying the story has “fuelled misinformation and HIV stigma”. 

On Friday (15 September), the Daily Mail ran a story focused on the so-called ‘shoplifting crisis’, which featured an exclusive interview with Richard Walker, the executive chairman of Iceland Foods. 

In the piece, Walker claimed three Iceland staff are now living with HIV after being attacked by shoplifters with hypodermic needles. 

“Colleagues are being slapped, punched and threatened with a range of weapons including knives, hammers, firearms and hypodermic needles.

“Three of our store colleagues are now HIV positive as a result of needle attacks several years ago. Other assaults have resulted in injuries ranging from a broken jaw to a fractured skull,” he told the tabloid. 

The article, penned by home affairs correspondent Rory Tingle, even went as far as to include the sentence: “The idea of victims being infected with HIV after being attacked with infected needles has long been a dark urban myth, but Mr Walker’s comments show this has now become a reality.”

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In response to this story, the National AIDS Trust has publicly questioned the validity of the claims and criticised the negative impacts such a story would have on people with HIV

In a statement published on Wednesday (20 September), the charity said it was “shocking” to read the MailOnline piece and shared “solidarity with any workers who are attacked”. 

However, the organisation went on to say it has raised concerns that claims of people being infected with HIV via needle attacks is “likely inaccurate and has fuelled misinformation and HIV stigma”.

“We are unaware of any cases of HIV having ever been transmitted in this way,” the statement from the National AIDS Trust reads, “Such transmission is almost impossible. 

“The HIV virus is fragile and cannot survive outside a body for a long time.”

The charity has also consulted with the UK Health Security Agency – the government body responsible for protecting the public from health threats – which said an attack as described in the article “would be a highly unlikely route of transmission because the vast majority of people living with HIV are on treatment and therefore have an undetectable level of virus and no transmission risk”. 

“Extremely stigmatising to people living with HIV”

The UK Health Security Agency added: “Anyone who has had a needlestick assault or injury is advised to seek medical advice.”

The National AIDS Trust noted that if a case of HIV transmission due to a needle attack was reported to medical professionals “an investigation would have been undertaken by the local public health team”.  

“If three such cases occurred in these specific circumstances a major investigation would have been opened,” the charity continued.

“Though we do not know the dates that these incidents are alleged to have occurred, we are not aware of any such investigation.”

The charity blasted the coverage and said media coverage like this is “extremely stigmatising to people living with HIV, perpetuate damaging narratives and spread incorrect information around HIV and its transmission”. 

“When the original piece was published, further media stories ran further amplifying these claims. We are happy that most outlets amended their articles or removed them completely on the day of publication. 

“We approached the MailOnline after the piece was published to ask them to fact check the claims but have heard nothing back and the story has not been amended,” the statement also added. 

“We have been in contact with Iceland to try and work together to clarify the facts. However as we have been unable to progress this, we now feel we cannot wait any longer to publicly challenge what we believe to be misinformation.”

The National AIDS Trust said it accepts that “Mr Walker believed this claim to be true when he said it’ but its “understanding of HIV transmission, alongside public health responses to HIV makes us confident that these incidents did not occur”. 

By way of conclusion, the charity said it would “welcome” a meeting with Walker to discuss how HIV has changed and what Iceland can do to challenge HIV stigma. 

PinkNews has contacted The Daily Mail and Iceland for comment.