Now, two new studies argue that qualms about the notification programs are unfounded.
Researchers in Colorado Springs and New Orleans found that telling one person in a relationship that the other is HIV positive didn't make it much more likely that the couple would break up. The notifications also didn't significantly increase the risk that the HIV-positive partner would move into a new relationship.
The Colorado Springs study, in fact, found that partners who were notified became more likely to use condoms. "Some people really did change their behavior after someone came and talked to them about being infected or exposed," says study co-author Nancy Spencer, a program manager with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The studies, however, are unlikely to quell the ongoing debate over the value of laws that make it illegal for HIV-positive patients to withhold lists of their sexual partners. Critics argue that such laws violate the civil rights and privacy of people who are infected with the AIDS virus, and the studies didn't touch on those areas.
Researchers in New Orleans compared two groups of venereal disease patients who disclosed the names of their sexual partners -- 76 patients with syphilis and 81 with HIV. Officials were able to inform 32 percent of the partners about their risk of being infected.
In Colorado Springs, meanwhile, researchers tried a different approach. They looked at several groups, including 19 HIV-positive patients whose partners were notified of their risk of illness and 74 people in HIV-negative couples. Both groups received HIV counseling.
The findings of the two studies appear in the January issue of the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
HIV-positive patients in New Orleans were no more likely than the syphilis patients to break up with their partners, find new partners or find themselves in violent relationships.
And in Colorado Springs, the HIV-positive subjects were no more likely to break up with their partners after disclosure of the illness than the HIV-negative couples.
The idea of informing sexual partners about their risk of venereal disease is nothing new. Public officials began tracking down partners in the 1930s as part of an effort to stop the spread of syphilis, which had become more treatable thanks to new drugs.
"Before that time, people wondered why they should do tracking if they didn't have any good drugs to treat the disease," says John J. Potterat, former director of STD and HIV Control in Colorado Springs. The same question returned in the 1980s during the beginning years of the AIDS epidemic when the disease was almost always fatal.
Some activists agued against notifying partners of HIV-positive patients for that reason, but Potterat is no fan of that approach. "Patients have a right to know they might have something serious, and they would want to be given the choice to not pass on something they might have," says Potterat, who wrote a commentary that accompanied the two studies in the journal.
The prospects for HIV patients changed drastically in the mid-1990s when new drugs let many infected people live indefinitely. Some public health departments began asking HIV-positive people to name their partners, but the practice still isn't the norm, especially in urban areas, Potterat says.
Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union argue that partner notification must be voluntary and they say the law shouldn't require HIV-positive people to list their partners.
Wondering what your state's policies are regarding HIV patients? Try your local health department or contact your state or territory AIDS agency to find out the latest. Get phone numbers for the latter agencies by visiting the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors.
Learn the ACLU's opinions on partner notification by going here.