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China, US Nudging Doors Open to HIV Carriers
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MEXICO CITY 7 August, 2008 (AFP): China's reported decision to lift a ban on HIV-positive visitors next year, close on the heels of a huge US step towards removing its own 21-year ban, raised spirits at an international AIDS meeting in Mexico Wednesday.

The reported imminent lifting of the Chinese ban blocking HIV/AIDS carriers from entering the country came amid increasing international pressure on some 67 countries which still deny entry, stay or residence to HIV-positive people.

Many of the scientists, policymakers and field workers at the massive, six-day International AIDS Conference in Mexico slammed the restrictions as discriminatory, violations of human rights and said they fail to protect public health.

"This issue got quite sidelined because those most impacted couldn't speak about it and couldn't come to international conferences," said Robert Bank, CEO of Gay Men's Health Crisis advocacy group, adding that International AIDS Conferences had played a part in raising awareness of the need to lift the ban.

Toronto lifted Canada's ban for its conference in 2006 and the bi-annual meeting has not been held in the United States for the past two decades due to the US ban.

At the end of last month, US President George W. Bush signed a $48-billion package of legislation to fight AIDS in developing countries, including the lifting of the US ban.

"I think it's enormously important if the US says 'we got it wrong'," said Bank.

"Changing the law in America doesn't happen every day."

The move was widely praised across the political spectrum but it still needs to be applied by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Craig McClure, executive director of the International AIDS Society, said he believed international momentum was beginning to pick up on the issue.

"Already in the past two weeks since the (US) news came out, there have been rumblings in other countries, including Russia and the United Arab Emirates," he told AFP.

On the eve of the Beijing Olympics, China appeared to be following the trend too.

"HIV/AIDS restrictions will be lifted in 2009," the China Daily said Wednesday, citing Hao Yang, deputy director of the health ministry's disease control and prevention bureau, in Mexico.

China introduced the ban in the late 1980s after it reported its first AIDS case in 1985, hoping to limit the spread of the virus by keeping it outside the country, according to the report.

The US total ban on entry -- which many said placed the US in a group of eight countries, including undemocratic Libya and Saudi Arabia -- also took force amid fear and hysteria surrounding HIV/AIDS in the late 1980s.

National restrictions range from requiring visitors to declare their HIV status, a temporary visa and a permanent blot on their passport, compulsory tests, or expulsion of illegal immigrants and total bans.

"The cliche excuse from all governments is that they want to protect their citizens," said Suskma Ratri, program officer for migrants with HIV at the CARAM Asia network of NGOs researching AIDS and mobility.

"But in a lot of cases, people were negative when they went to the destination, but contracted it there."

Migrant workers to Malaysia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates have mandatory annual HIV testing and can be deported if they are found to be HIV positive, forcing them to lose their jobs and face stigma at home too.

In the United States, most illegal immigrants are afraid to take an HIV-test, a requirement for obtaining a green card.

"Many people believe that should they test positive, they'll be deported," said Amanda Lugg of the African Services Committee helping immigrants in New York City.

HIV-positive Singaporean Gurmit Singh was one of the few who had been affected by visa restrictions and was present in Mexico.

Singh, 36, won a scholarship to study for a PHD in Australia in 2005, but his visa application revealed his HIV-positive status and his request was rejected for failing to meet the "health requirements" for the long-term visa.

He appealed, and was finally offered a renewable, two-year conditional visa that included compulsory health screenings every three months. He declined because he feared he would not have been allowed to finish his PHD.

"I know that my case is not unique, there are people who are much less fortunate than me," he told AFP.

Copyright 2008 Agence France-Presse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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