Activists Applaud U.S. Lifting of HIV Travel Restrictions

AIDS experts praised the United States on Tuesday for ending its two-decade ban on HIV-positive people entering the country, saying travel restrictions by dozens of other countries are hurting efforts to control the epidemic.

BY Mike Grippi

August 05 2008 11:00 PM ET

AIDS experts
praised the United States on Tuesday for ending its
two-decade ban on HIV-positive people entering the country,
saying travel restrictions by dozens of other
countries are hurting efforts to control the epidemic.

President Bush
signed legislation last week repealing a rule that
prevented HIV-infected immigrants, students, and tourists
from receiving U.S. visas without special waivers. The
ban also held up U.S. adoptions of children with HIV.
Seven nations still have an outright ban on entry for
HIV-infected people, and more than 65 impose some travel
restrictions on the estimated 33 million people
worldwide living with the virus.

United
Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, whose native
South Korea denies entry to HIV-infected visitors,
said the restrictions "should fill us with shame" in
his opening address to the AIDS conference in Mexico
City, which brings together 25,000 officials,
scientists, and activists this week.

Ron MacInnis,
director of policy for the International AIDS Society,
which organized the conference, said travel
restrictions often force people with HIV to hide or
even lie about being infected.

"It's blatantly
discriminatory to single out people with HIV. It's
stupid and ridiculous," said MacInnis, who has HIV. "These
restrictions are really impeding our ability to control HIV
and AIDS."

Many nations
adopted their restrictions during the 1980s when mass
hysteria surrounded the virus and little was known about how
it is spread.

Peter Piot, MD,
executive director of the Joint U.N. Programme on
HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), said there is no public health
justification for the bans and that they undermine
efforts to control the epidemic by painting it as a
foreign problem that can be curbed by controlling borders.
UNAIDS formed an international task force in January
to work toward their elimination.

The European AIDS
Treatment Group says seven nations bar people with HIV
from entering: Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, South Korea,
United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. About 30 deport
foreigners once they are discovered to have the virus,
including North Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hungary,
Egypt, Sri Lanka, and Russia, the group says.

Last year
Australian prime minister John Howard said he opposes
letting HIV-positive people immigrate, triggering
anger among health care workers.

For now, the
country allows HIV-infected visitors but requires testing
for those intending to work as doctors, dentists, or nurses
as well as for sub-Saharan Africans over 14
wanting to study, a spokesman for Australia's
immigration department said. It can also reject migrants
for fear they will run up large medical bills.

Developed
countries say the travel restrictions keep them from having
to swallow the costs of caring for HIV-positive people
from poorer nations. But activists say studies show
that this isn't occurring on a significant scale in
countries without restrictions.

The AIDS virus is
spread through bodily fluids via sexual intercourse,
blood transfusions, the sharing of needles, and in rare
cases, breast-feeding. Activists say the best way to
control the epidemic is by raising awareness so that
people get tested for the virus and take precautions.

The international
travel bans have complicated the work of prominent AIDS
activists, including Shaun Mellors of South Africa, a former
cochair of the UNAIDS international task force.

He has been
banned from entering the United States since 1994, when he
traveled to New York to participate in the Gay Games and
told a reporter he had refused to declare his
HIV-positive status or ask for a special waiver.

"I told him 'no'
because I thought it was stupid and discriminatory,"
said Mellors, 43.

When U.S.
immigration authorities saw the article, Mellors said his
name was put into the U.S. consular alert system as
someone who obtained a visa fraudulently. When he
passed through the United States on his way to Canada,
authorities found him in the system and deported him.

He is unsure
whether he will be allowed back into the United States now
that Bush has repealed the ban. But he hopes other nations
will now be motivated to ease their restrictions.

"It's been
humiliating to constantly be classified as a
criminal," he said. "I think it's great that America has
finally seen the light."

China has
promised to lift its ban, though it has not said when, and
nations from Russia to the United Arab Emirates are revising
their policies, said Craig McClure, executive director
of the International AIDS Society.

"The U.S. always
sets the tone," McClure said. "This is huge not only
for the people who have not been able to enter the U.S., but
finally these laws might be overturned throughout the
world." (Julie Watson, AP)

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