HIV/AIDS travel restrictions condemned

Delegates at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City have condemned national restrictions on the movements of people living with HIV/AIDS.  According to the Kaiser Network,

Developed countries say such restrictions help them avoid the cost of caring for HIV-positive people from other nations, but advocates say research shows that countries without restrictions have not had to do so on a significant scale. According to the European AIDS Treatment Group, seven nations — Brunei, Oman, Qatar, Sudan, South Korea, United Arab Emirates and Yemen — deny entry for people living with HIV and 30 countries deport foreigners reported to have HIV. In addition, more than 65 nations enforce some degree of travel restriction for HIV-positive individuals.

Such restrictions are widely reviled by AIDS advocates.  This week, some of the top officials involved in international HIV/AIDS efforts denounced travel restrictions as discriminatory and harmful:

In his opening address at the conference, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the travel restrictions on people living with HIV “should fill us with shame.” Ron MacInnis, policy director for IAS, said travel restrictions “imped[e] our ability to control HIV and AIDS” and compel HIV-positive people to conceal their status. He added that it is “blatantly discriminatory to single out people with HIV.” UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot said there is no public health justification for the travel restrictions, adding that they undermine efforts to control HIV/AIDS by implying that the disease can be curbed with tight border restrictions (AP/Los Angeles Times, 8/5).

Some advocates hope that the US will quickly repeal its travel restrictions, thereby setting a standard for other countries to follow.  The recent legislation that re-authorized PEPFAR also “eases U.S. HIV/AIDS travel restrictions.”  The Kaiser Network reports, however, that “it is not clear whether [Health and Human Services] plans to address the restrictions in the near future. HHS in 1987 placed HIV on a list of diseases barring entry into the U.S. Although that prohibition is separate from the congressionally imposed travel restrictions eased in the PEPFAR bill, federal health officials are no longer bound by law to keep HIV on the list.”

The International AIDS Society — the “association of HIV/AIDS professionals” that organizes the International AIDS Conference — has a history of activism against travel restrictions for people living with HIV/AIDS.  According to its website, “For the past 18 years, IAS has strongly urged governments around the world not to ban entry of people living with HIV (PLHIV). This type of policy has no scientific, medical, or public health benefit, and only further stigmatizes them.”

The IAS’s strong stance on the issue has had major implications for the history of the International AIDS Conference.  According to the IAS website, in 1989 “Dutch HIV-prevention expert Hans Paul Verhoef was jailed for four days in Minneapolis en route to an AIDS meeting in San Francisco after AZT [an early HIV treatment medication] was discovered in his suitcase.”  This triggered a mass boycott of the 1990 International AIDS Conference in San Francisco, and the relocation of the 1992 conference from Boston to Amsterdam.

The IAS has appreciated the international policy implications and strategic importance of travel restrictions against PLHIV since 1989 when Dutch HIV-prevention expert Hans Paul Verhoef was jailed for four days in Minneapolis en route to an AIDS meeting in San Francisco after AZT was discovered in his suitcase, with subsequent demonstrations and mass boycott at the 1990 International AIDS Conference (IAC) in San Francisco.  The International AIDS Conference has not been held in the United States since.  This was a major shift, as the San Francisco conference was the third to be held in the US, after AIDS 1985 in Atlanta and AIDS 1987 in Washington (see this post on past locations).

According to its website, the IAS approved a “formal written policy” in July 2007, “confirming that the IAS will not hold its conferences in countries that restrict short term entry of PLHIV, and/or require prospective HIV-positive visitors to declare their HIV status on visa application forms or other documentation required for entry into the country.”

For more on the history of IAS interactions with governments that sponsor travel restrictions for people living with HIV/AIDS, see this page from the IAS site.

It would be great to see the US finally get rid of these restrictions: frankly, they are a disgrace.*  Not only are they unjust, experts agree they do more harm than good.  The US seems to have a knack for tossing common sense and compassion out the window when it feels threatened (actually, in retrospect, it’s tempting to see the travel restrictions for people living with HIV/AIDS as something of a forerunner to some of the restrictive policies implemented since September, 2001).  Perhaps we can hope that the US will drop its travel restrictions, and that this will encourage the questioning of other, analogous positions.
 

* For that matter, they’re rather ironic: the US has the 39th highest adult HIV prevalence in the world (0.6 percent, significantly higher than Mexico, Canada, China, India, Japan, the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, and the vast majority of Western Europe) and the 7th highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS.

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~ by h.e.g. on August 8, 2008.

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