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PETA courts controversy with article claiming fish pedicures could spread HIV

An article in PETA Asia’s Website courted controversy and confusion after claiming that fish pedicures could spread HIV. Earlier, UK’s National AIDS Trust already said that “there is no risk of HIV being passed on through a fish pedicure and these claims do nothing but undermine public understanding.”

A somewhat old(er) article of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Asia has belatedly courted controversy, not to mention confusion, after claiming that fish pedicures could spread HIV and hepatitis C.

In an article written by former PETA Asia intern Rona Santos, and which was published in 2016, PETA Asia claimed the possibility of getting infected with HIV and hepatitis C when availing of fish pedicures. This ill-conceived position backed the earlier position popularized in 2011 by UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA), which released guidelines in 2011 that said that those with diabetes, psoriasis or a weak immune system should not take part in the beauty craze at all. The risk, according to HPA then, is “extremely low” but it “cannot be completely excluded”.

With fish pedicure, numerous fish (usually Garra Rufa) nibble dead skin from customers’ feet. HPA said that fish tank water contains micro-organisms, and bacteria may be transmitted by the fish from the spa water itself or from one customer to another if the water is not changed. Infamously, HPA stated that if a user is infected with a blood-borne virus like HIV or hepatitis and bleeds in the water, there is a risk the diseases could be passed on.

Even in 2011, HPA’s claim was widely criticized.

For instance, Deborah Jack, chief executive of NAT (National AIDS Trust), expressed shock and disappointment to see reports on fish pedicure causing HIV. “HIV can be passed on through sex without a condom or by sharing infected needles or other injecting drug equipment. There is no risk of HIV being passed on through a fish pedicure and these claims do nothing but undermine public understanding. At a time when knowledge of HIV is declining, it is crucial for the public to be aware of the facts so they can protect themselves from real transmission risk – and not get preoccupied with sensationalist and inaccurate reports.”

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Outrage Magazine reached out to PETA in the Philippines.

In an email, Nirali Shah, media liaison of PETA Asia, said that the content was already removed from the site following Outrage Magazine’s correspondence, and “after our research came back as inconclusive.”

PETA’s article has since been changed with:
“According to a report by the UK’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, even the tiniest cut can quickly become infected when exposed to the bacteria thriving on fish scales or waste.”

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