During his campaign, President Obama promised to overcome the ideological and fear-based policies of the “President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief” (PEPFAR), including the “HIV Travel Ban,” which restricts entry of people living with HIV for even short-term stays. The PEPFAR reauthorization, which extends to 2013, repealed this ban, taking it off activists’ agendas.
But HIV remains on HHS’s list of communicable diseases, and thus remains a factor in the decisions of immigration officials. As HHS Secretary-designate Kathleen Sebelius begins her Senate confirmation hearings, she must move quickly on her own confirmation to lift these restrictions.
The United States is one of 14 countries with such a policy, and the other countries in our company have a record of human rights abuse: Brunei, Egypt, Iraq, Malaysia, Oman, Qatar, Singapore, South Korea, Sudan, Tunisia, Turks and Caicos, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Over 200 health groups oppose the HIV travel ban. “It is far past time for the U.S. to join the community of nations whose HIV entry policies are rooted in sound public health practices, rather than discrimination and ignorance,” said Pat Daoust, MSN, RN, and director of Physicians for Human Rights. The UNAIDS Task Team on HIV-Related Travel Restrictions has found that this policy is increasing the stigma that prevents people from utilizing services and encourages the dangerous misconception that HIV risk only exists abroad.
President Reagan enacted this policy in the context of ignorance about the spread of HIV/AIDS and its relation to homosexuality and Africa, as well as out of outright homophobia, xenophobia and racism, though he justified it as protection from contagion. Despite his campaign promises, President Clinton was unable to pass the repeal through Congress.
There is no legitimate scientific, political or economic argument for the ban. Once it is fully repealed, the quota of immigrants and refugees accepted will still be predetermined by executive order. Other wealthy countries that have repealed such a ban have not experienced a flood of HIV-infected foreigners, but instead only a slight increase in HIV-positive immigrants, most of whom are relatives of citizens. Furthermore, the small percentage of health benefits to the HIV-positive is predicted to increase spending by less than $500,000 and will be taken into account through sponsor’s affidavit and public charge assessment requirements that are built into immigration law.
So what is propelling this policy through administration after administration? For the answer one can look to the movie “Outbreak.” I will admit that I first watched this movie to see McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy wearing an ’80s leather coat, black curly locks and an earring.
But the story of a military and government willing to blow up a town to prevent the spread of contagious disease and preserve a bioweapon is eerily close to home. In this movie, officials are willing to act without information, creating a fear-based policy. This “for the greater good” argument, used by a military general played by Morgan Freeman in the movie, was commonly seen in press releases from the last administration. Examples include “national security” threats being used to justify the war in Iraq, wiretapping, detention and torture.
Public health is geared towards protecting a population, while medicine is more individual. But it is hard to find a public health official who agrees with any of these policies, which have no scientific or rational basis.
The Obama administration has much legislation to revise and during this term, health disparities will grow, AIDS will spread, the global disease burden will affect trade and travel, biosecurity will take a prominent place on the international stage and the world will continue to be influenced by hysteria and fear. But human rights must come before irrational, fear-justified policies, and this mental change can start with the full repeal of the “HIV-travel ban.”
Samantha Diamond is a junior in Morse College.