Deadly Ignorance

Fear of HIV Transmission Gets in the Way of CPR

On June 21, 2005, Claude Green apparently suffered sudden cardiac arrest while driving a pickup truck near his home in Welch, West Virginia. Green's friend, Billy Snead, was a passenger in the truck. Snead was able to grab the wheel after Green lost consciousness and guide the truck to a stop. Snead then got out of the truck, ran around the driver's side, and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) on Green.

Welch Police Chief Robert Bowman happened upon the scene of the cardiac arrest as Snead was performing chest compressions on Green. Bowman called for an ambulance and ordered Snead to stop helping Green, despite evidence that Snead's efforts were working. Snead remembers that Green had begun breathing shallowly before Bowman ordered him to stop CPR.

Bowman announced to Snead that Green had HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Bowman was familiar with Green and apparently thought the victim was gay. Presumably, Green's sexual orientation was the only reason Bowman thought he had HIV. There was no other evidence to suggest to Bowman that Green was HIV positive - which Green was not.

Snead initially ignored Bowman's order to stop CPR, but was then physically restrained by Bowman. Once another police officer arrived on the scene, Bowman ordered Snead escorted away from the pickup truck for questioning.

Green allegedly went without medical treatment for nearly 8 minutes until emergency medical services (EMS) arrived.

Chief Bowman told the EMS crew that Green was HIV positive and crew members passed the information along to the hospital. Despite Green's supposed HIV status, the EMS crew and the hospital continued - correctly - their attempts to resuscitate Green.

Green did not respond and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Chief Bowman's Assumptions

Welch Police Chief Robert Bowman would not let Billy Snead continue to perform CPR on Claude Green, presumably because Bowman thought that Green was gay. There doesn't seem to be any other evidence to suggest that Green was positive for HIV. Indeed, Green was not HIV positive.

The possibility is remote that Bowman would be right about a man being HIV positive simply because he was gay.

The CDC reports 10,852 men with HIV in 2005 nationwide. There are no reliable statistics on the population of homosexual males in the United States. However, even if only 2% of the population is gay, that means there are 2,919,994 gay men in the US (based on census estimates for July 2005 and CDC estimates of sexual orientation). That gives Bowman a 0.37% chance of being right about Green's HIV status.

But What if Chief Bowman was Right?

Let's assume for the sake of argument that Bowman was accidentally correct about Green being HIV positive. There is no evidence that a rescuer, lay or professional, can contract HIV from a victim of cardiac arrest while performing CPR. The American Heart Association previously addressed the issue with this statement:

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says no scientific evidence shows that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is transmitted by saliva. The American Heart Association doesn't know of anyone getting AIDS from contact with a manikin used in CPR training, or from giving CPR to a cardiac arrest victim.

I'm not suggesting Chief Bowman's actions were malicious, but he blocked Snead from continuing CPR. In fact, Snead believes Green was responding to the rescue efforts and had begun breathing prior to Bowman ordering him to stop. The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the estate of Claude Green, alleging wrongful death.

On December 22, 2006, a judge denied Bowman's petition to dismiss the complaint.

Do Rescuers Have to Provide CPR?

Well, it depends on whether you are a lay rescuer or a professional rescuer.

Lay rescuers are not required to help. There are currently no states that require lay rescuers to provide care to medical victims. Many states do have Good Samaritan laws to protect lay rescuers from lawsuits arising from their good-faith attempts to render aid, even if the rescuers make reasonable mistakes.

Grossly negligent mistakes are not usually protected, but are hard to prove.

Professional rescuers have different rules. In most cases, professional rescuers have a duty to act in cases of medical emergency, meaning that a professional rescuer cannot withhold medical care for most victims. The rules are complicated regarding rescuer safety, allowing rescuers to delay care in cases of exceptional risk to the rescuer. Usually, these exceptions are physical in nature. For example, a rescuer cannot be expected to rush into a burning building without the proper safety equipment or when the building is about to collapse. Threat of infection, though, is not usually a reasonable exception.

What Should You Do?

Deciding as a lay rescuer whether to help or not is extremely personal. Of course, the advice for protecting yourself from HIV infection during rescue attempts is the same as it is for sexual activity; the only way to truly protect yourself is abstinence.

However, if we all ignored our fellow human beings in times of need, where would we be?

A much more ethical and common sense approach would be to learn the dangers of HIV transmission and follow universal precautions. Get the personal protective equipment necessary to provide good care without worry.

Nobody expects rescuers to put themselves in danger in order to help another person - unless, of course, it's their duty as professionals. Danger though, is relative, and there is little evidence that any danger exists to the rescuer performing CPR on a nonbleeding victim of cardiac arrest.

Cardiac arrest victims have a statistically low chance of survival, so no person can say for sure if Claude Green would have lived had care not been delayed. However, there are no excuses for ignorance keeping anyone from trying to save a life.


"Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)." 2006. American Heart Association. Accessed on 05 Jan 2007 at (Page no longer available)

"Estate of Claude Green v. Robert Bowman - Case Profile." 27 Feb 2006. ACLU. American Civil Liberties Union. 05 Jan 2007

Fairbanks, RJ, et al."Epidemiology and outcomes of out-of-hospital cardiac arrest in Rochester, New York." Resuscitation. 2006 Dec 13

Mosher WD, Chandra A, Jones J. "Sexual behavior and selected health measures: Men and women 15㫄 years of age, United States, 2002." Advance data from vital and health statistics; no 362. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2005.