RIGHTS-US: NGOs Praise End to HIV Travel Ban

  • by Jim Lobe (washington)
  • Friday, October 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The termination of what has been called the 'HIV Travel Ban', which came during a White House ceremony marking Obama's signing of a law that finances education, prevention and treatment programmes for U.S. HIV patients, will take effect early next year.

'Twenty-two years ago, in a decision rooted in fear rather than fact, the United States instituted a travel ban on entry into the country for people living with HIV/AIDS,' Obama said.

'If we want to be a global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it,' he said. 'And that's why, on Monday, my administration will publish a final rule that eliminates the travel ban effective just after the New Year.'

'This is a major breakthrough on U.S. policy on global AIDS, said Paul Zeitz, head of the Global AIDS Alliance (GAA). 'The U.S. travel ban was stigmatising to people living with HIV-AIDS, and many countries around the world modelled their own stigmatising travel bans on the U.S. law.'

'So this will help lift the stigma that many HIV-positive people experience around the world,' he added.

'This ban was contemptible, fear mongering, and scientifically baseless, and elimination was long overdue,' said Asia Russell, director of Health Global Access Project (GAP). 'We call on the remaining countries with travel and immigrant bans to join the U.S. in eliminating those restrictions.'

The ban has long been controversial — and a cause for considerable embarrassment in the U.S. public health community.

It was first imposed in 1987 by the Public Health Service (PHS) under pressure from U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Even though the PHS at the time noted that HIV did not meet its standard definition of 'contagious' because it could not be spread by 'casual contact', it added the illness to a list of 'dangerous and contagious diseases' whose victims are excluded from entry into the United States.

In that same year, Congress, led by far-right Sen. Jesse Helms, codified HIV/AIDS' inclusion on the list.

In 1990, some 70 AIDS, medical, and government organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the British Medical Association, and the European Parliament, boycotted the 6th International Conference on AIDS in 1990 to protest the ban.

As a result, Harvard University withdrew its sponsorship of the 8th International Conference, which was held in Amsterdam instead.

In 1991, when the government's Centers for Disease Control (CDC) proposed a rule that would remove HIV and all other diseases, except for active tuberculosis, from the list, right-wing Republicans successfully blocked it.

In 1993, Congress agreed to most of the CDC's recommendations under an immigration bill but retained HIV infection as grounds for denying non-citizens entry into the U.S. without a special waiver.

Congress finally overturned the ban in July 2008 as part of legislation that re-authorised George W. Bush's President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Although the bill, which provides 48 billion dollars for PEPFAR over five years, was signed into law by Bush, he proved slower to initiate the bureaucratic process necessary to complete the process than had been anticipated.

In his remarks Friday, Obama commended both Bush and Congress for taking action, adding, 'We are finishing the job.'

'We talk about reducing the stigma of this disease — yet we've treated a visitor living it as a threat,' he said. 'We lead the world when it comes to helping stem the AIDS pandemic — yet we are one of only a dozen countries that still bar people from HIV from entering our own country.'

He said lifting the ban will also 'encourage people to get tested (for HIV) and get treatment; it's a step that will keep families together, and it's a step that will save lives'.

Indeed, health and immigration activists noted that many HIV-positive individuals avoided getting tested for the disease in order to preserve their ability to enter the U.S. and other countries which maintain similar bans.

'Good riddance to this discriminatory rule that had no basis in public health or sound science,' said Arlene Bardeguez, the outgoing director of Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). 'This long-overdue move brings the U.S. in line with current scientific and international standards of public health and will lessen the painful stigma and discrimination suffered by HIV-positive people.'

'Today is a great day for human rights and for people living with AIDS, their friends and their families,' said Frank Donaghue, the head of Boston-based Physicians for Human Rights.

'The HIV Travel Ban made the United States a pariah in human rights circles, and harmed our reputation as a world leader of HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care,' he stated.

'Starting in 2010, people living with HIV will no longer be prevented from entering this country, no longer turned away at customs, no longer forced to hide their condition and interrupt medical treatment, and no longer be treated by our government with contempt.'

While welcoming the Friday's announcement, Health GAP's Russell stressed that it was one of a number of public promises Obama made on AIDS policy during his presidential campaign.

'He also publicly promised to fully fund global AIDS programmes, and he is breaking that promise,' she told IPS, noting that his proposed six-year global-health budget of 63 billion dollars will fall short of his campaign promises.

'This is already resulting in some clinics in sub-Saharan Africa flat-lining their HIV treatment cohorts,' she said. 'People are dying unnecessarily on waiting lists because the administration is not keeping its promises to fully fund PEPFAR and the Global Fund (to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria).'

Health GAP, GAA and PHR and two dozen other public health groups released a report earlier this week calling for Washington to increase global health spending from the current annual level of nearly eight billion dollars to 16 billion dollars by 2011, and a total of 95 billion dollars over six years.

Largely due to Bush's PEPFAR programme, annual U.S. global-health spending has increased from 1.5 billion dollars in 2001 to 7.7 billion dollars this year.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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