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Lawsuit lays burden on county to curb AIDS in porn industry

An activist group asks that the L.A. County Health Department be ordered to enforce regulations on condom use in adult films or take other steps to keep the disease from spreading.

July 17, 2009|Kimi Yoshino

A prominent AIDS advocacy group filed a petition in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Thursday alleging that county public health officials have failed to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the pornographic film industry.

The petition, filed by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, asks the court to order the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health to enforce regulations that require condom use in adult-film production or take other reasonable steps to stem the spread of disease.

The legal action comes a month after the disclosure that an adult-film actress tested positive for HIV and county health officials released data that 18 HIV cases and more than 3,700 cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis have been reported since 2004 by the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, a San Fernando Valley-based clinic. Clinic officials said the HIV cases did not involve active performers. County officials declined to provide any details about those cases and said little investigation was done into them.

"We're the porn capital of the world and it's clear that the county has no intention of making these sets safer or of protecting the rest of the community from the diseases that are being spread in the production of these films," said Michael Weinstein, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "You cannot conduct public health in a fashion where you won't speak publicly about an issue."

After news broke of the first publicly reported HIV case since an outbreak in 2004 led to a one-month shutdown of the porn industry, county health officials blasted the clinic for not cooperating fully with health officials and called on producers to do more to safeguard employees.

Since then, public health officials have done little to explain the 18 HIV cases since 2004 and have repeatedly declined to comment about whether the county has the authority to enforce laws that protect employees from blood and bodily fluids in the workplace.

The department issued a statement Thursday reaffirming its commitment to preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

"The county continues to strongly support state legislation and the regulatory role of Cal/OSHA as the most appropriate means to regulate the practices in the adult-film industry that expose performers to unnecessary and preventable occupational risks of acquiring and transmitting these diseases," the statement read. "The department does not believe that litigation is the best means to deal with this issue."

The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health has launched an investigation into the latest case and issued subpoenas seeking access to clinical medical records. That investigation is ongoing.

In its petition, the AIDS group cites state health and safety codes that charge the county health department with taking "all measures reasonably necessary to prevent the transmission of infection." According to the department's own presentations and statistics, adult-film performers are 10 times more likely to be infected with sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, many performers contract multiple infections in a year.

County health officials have said that since 2004, 2,378 people who identified themselves as adult-film industry performers have tested positive for chlamydia in Los Angeles County, 1,357 tested positive for gonorrhea and 15 for syphilis.

Foundation attorney Brian Chase said the organization has had some legal success trying to get government agencies to enforce existing law.

In December, a Los Angeles County judge ruled in favor of the foundation, agreeing that the state Department of Health Care Services had failed to enact a 6-year-old state law to expand medical care for low-income Californians living with HIV.

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kimi.yoshino@latimes.com

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