MEXICO CITY (AP) — AIDS experts praised the United States for ending its two-decade ban on HIV-positive people entering the country, and said travel restrictions by dozens of other countries are hurting efforts to control the epidemic.
U.S. President George W. Bush signed legislation earlier this month 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.
U.N. 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 brought together 25,000 officials, scientists and activists last week.
Ron MacInnis, director of policy for the International AIDS Society that 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.
Dr. Peter Piot, executive director of 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 ban 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, and 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 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 people are 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 co-chair 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.”