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The XVII International AIDS Conference ended in Mexico City last week, leaving participants with much to focus on until the next conference, which takes place in Vienna in 2010. One of these areas of focus are the travel restrictions imposed on HIV-positive people entering a country for the short or long-term. Conference organizers and many officials at the event condemned these policies as discriminatory and shameful.

SciDev.Net's conference blog reports that:

“An issue widely discussed in the AIDS 2008 conference is the fact that several countries deny the entry, stay or residence of HIV-positive people because of their HIV status.

According to the publication Entry denied, published by UNAIDS in partnership with other organisations and distributed at the conference, at least 67 countries are on the list of those that deny the entry to people living with HIV/AIDS.”

Mexico, where AIDS 2008 was held, has no traveling restrictions for people with HIV/AIDS, but 65 or so other nations enforce some degree of restriction on the estimated 33 million people living with HIV globally. Seven nations, according to the European AIDS Treatment Group, impose a complete entry ban on HIV-positive people: Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Countries with such restrictions often argue that it helps protect public health and avoid costs associated with treating HIV-positive people from other nations.

David Cozac, who blogged about the human rights sessions at AIDS 2008, says that experts disagreed with such arguments.

“During a session on travel restrictions for people living with HIV, participants decried the fact that although there is no evidence that travel restrictions have a positive public health impact, 67 countries still have restrictions in place.”

One of the countries with such restrictions is China. Despite hopes that China would lift its HIV-related traveling restrictions before the Olympics, the country has maintained them, even during the games. Under their current regulations, tourists and short-term visitors must declare their HIV status, and those planning to stay long-term must undergo a blood test; if found to be HIV-positive, they are refused entry.

Denise Patterson, blogging from Thailand, comments on China's ban of visitors with AIDS and other health conditions during the Olympics:

” A ban on people with mental illnesses or sexually transmitted diseases? That is very amusing. If the Chinese government believes they can control every aspect of the Olympics, they are sadly mistaken…

… According to 2007 statistics, published by the World Health Organization, the HIV/AIDS rate in China is 2.9% of the population. The ‘ban' doesn't seem to be working.”

However, China may be responding to the pressure. China Daily reports that Hao Yang, deputy director of the ministry's disease control and prevention bureau, told the publication at AIDS 2008 that the two-decade-old HIV/AIDS travel ban will likely be lifted in 2009.

China may be following America's lead for change. In July U.S. President George W. Bush signed legislation to repeal the statutory ban on entry into the U.S. for HIV-positive tourists, students, and immigrants, taking the first step needed to eliminate the ban. However, for the ban to be completely lifted, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) must now remove HIV from a list of diseases that prevent people from entering the U.S. HIV is currently still on the list.

Kevinf, posting on ToTheCenter.com, writes about the positive reaction to this repeal.

“Many AIDS experts and rights activists find the new legislation to be a cause for celebration. Previously, travel restrictions could cause more trouble than they prevented, causing people with HIV to lie about their condition. It was discriminatory and would also lead to many of the infected to lie.”

David Munar posts this video of Rev. Christo Greyling of World Vision International, where he discusses why such travel bans are detrimental and raises questions about the U.S. repeal.

LauraK, blogging for AIDS 2008's youth site, warns that the U.S. repeal is a major step, but not the final one.

“It is now up to the Secretary of Health to change regulations to reflect the new legislation. HIV must be taken off of the list of diseases that mean inadmissibility to the United States, but Congresswoman [Barbara] Lee is confident that this will happen soon.”

She goes on to share how such travel restrictions have impacted those with HIV, as she witnessed at an AIDS 2008 questioning period.

“One man came forward to express the sense of betrayal felt by those forced out by the restrictions, he had personal experience as a US citizen living in Canada with a partner who is HIV-positive. He still loved his country, he told the panel, but he was ashamed and angry with his government for initiating the repressive legislation that forced him to choose between his country and his partner, as well as for taking 20 years to address it.”

Photo of Red Traveling Suitcase by tofutti break on Flickr.

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