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US Travel Ban on HIV-infected Individuals

Posted Feb 10 2009 9:09am
Welcome to this installment of The AIDS pandemic, a podcast hosted by Dr. David Wessner from the Department of Biology at Davidson College. I’m Middleton Chang.

Since 1987, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has imposed a travel ban on HIV-infected individuals, under the premise that HIV falls into their list of “dangerous and contagious” diseases which present a public health risk. The law specifically prohibited foreigners from immigrating or obtaining a travel visa to the United States. Activists had long decried the ban for several reasons, until this past summer. On July 30, 2008, President Bush signed into law a five-year, $48 billion bill to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis around the world as well as lift the ban on HIV positive travelers. Yet the ban has still not actually been lifted. HIV/AIDS activists, at first praising the current administration are becoming impatient for an actual removal of the ban.

HIV/AIDS activists originally declared the ban to be unnecessary and unfair. The ban was not codified into law however until 1993 during the Clinton Administration, much to the chagrin of activists. This legislation made HIV the only specific medical condition mentioned as grounds for inadmissibility to the United States. Activists argue that the ban was just another in a long string on US inconsistencies on HIV/AIDS policy. Helene Gayle, president of CARE, stated that the ban was not consistent with the international leadership role the United States has taken with PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief). Experts at the International AIDS conference this past fall were full of praise for the new legislation lifting the travel ban. However, little has been done to actually lift the ban. In order to do so, the Department of Health and Human Services must write a new rule, submit it for public comment, and finalize it. The Bush Administration has moved with the speed of a rolling stone gathering moss on this issue. Last week 58 house Democrats submitted a letter to President Bush urging “swift action” on the issue.
Due to the ban, no major AIDS conference has been held on US soil since 1993 as no activists or researchers infected with the virus may enter the country without embarking on a complicated waiver process. In 1991, 40,000 Haitian political refugees fled to the United States. Of these refugees, 158 were detained in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba due to the ban. For nearly twenty months, Guantanamo Bay hosted these 158 political refugees, due to either being HIV-positive, or a relative of one of the positive refugees. A court order was needed to force the Clinton Administration to close down the razor-wire encircled refugee camp setup in 1991 by the Bush Administration.

Despite the fact President Bush has signed the bill mandating removal of the ban into law, HIV remains on the list of “dangerous and contagious” diseases that may prevent entry into the United States. Recently, the Department of Homeland Security released a revised and “streamlined” process for obtaining a waiver, making it easier to obtain the necessary paperwork. However, the Department of Heath and Human Services has still not removed HIV from the list of medical conditions which are grounds for exclusion from entering the United States.

A study conducted in 2006 showed that of 1113 HIV positive survey respondents. 349 (31%) had traveled to the United States. Of those 349 that had traveled to the US, only 14.3% traveled with the mandatory waiver to obtain a travel visa. Many simply did not disclose their status. This study not only shows the inefficacy of the travel ban, but shows the harm presented to HIV positive individuals who desire to visit the United States. The study showed that patients on anti-retroviral therapy (212 patients) were more likely to go off their medication, increasing their chances of developing drug-resistant HIV strains or developing AIDS. The study concluded that people do so “with insufficient planning and advice.”

Only about a dozen countries around the world maintain a travel ban on people living with HIV. These countries are: Iraq, China, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan, Qatar, Brunei, Oman, Moldova, Russia, Armenia, and South Korea. Should the United States still include itself amongst these countries in discriminating against people living with HIV?

Thanks for listening, until next time I’m Middleton Chang.

For more information:
Mahto M, Ponnusamy K, Schuhwerk M, Richens J, Lambert N, Wilkins E, Churchill DR, Miller RF, Behrens RH. “Knowledge, attitudes and health outcomes in HIV-infected travellers to the USA”. HIV Medicine 2006; 7: 201–204.

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
-An excerpt from The New Colossus, which hangs within the Statue’s Pedestal.
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