Senate may vote to repeal US ban on HIV+ travellers

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A former candidate for President of the United States has said he hopes he will be able to remove a ban on people who are HIV positive travelling to the country.

Speaking to the HIV/AIDS Task Force of the Centre for Strategic & International Studies in Washington DC yesterday, Senator John Kerry said there is “no excuse for a law that stigmatises a particular disease.”

Alongside his Republican colleague Gordon Smith, Senator Kerry has attached an amendment to a bill authorising $50 billon for PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

The bulk of the money is for HIV prevention and AIDS treatment, but there are substantial sums to fight TB and malaria. Countries in Africa and the Caribbean will benefit.

The PEPFAR legislation is due to be voted on by the Senate this week.

Under current US immigration law, any foreign national who tests positive for HIV is “inadmissible,” meaning he is barred from permanent residence and even short-term travel in the United States.

There are waivers available to this rule, but obtaining them has always been difficult.

The ban originates from 1987, when fear about the spread of the disease led US officials to require anyone with HIV to declare their status and apply for a special waiver visa.

New regulations purport to speed up the waiver application process because consular officers would be empowered to make decisions on waiver applications without seeking Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sign off.

However, by using this “streamlined” application process, waiver applicants would have to agree to give up the ability to apply for any change in status while in the US, including applying for legal permanent residence.

The United States is one of 13 countries in the world, including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan, that bans entry to individuals who are HIV-positive.

Last month the European Commissioner for Justice raised the ban with Michael Chertoff, US Secretary of Homeland Security.

Jacques Barrot asked for “information on the reasons why individuals carrying HIV are excluded from using the US Visa Waiver Programme.”

MEPs have kept pressure on the Commission over the issue as the EU is in negotiations with the US authorities to secure visa-free travel (a visa waiver) for EU citizens from all 27 member states.

In May the European Parliament passed a resolution demanding the ongoing negotiations include the exclusion of Europeans with HIV from the visa waiver programme, and ensure equal treatment of all EU citizens.

The Commission says there are no objective reasons for a travel ban for HIV infected persons.

Earlier this year the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) stated:

“There is no need to single out HIV for specific consideration as an exclusion criterion.”