Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ending an Era of Shameful Discrimination

By Steve Villano

The inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty, from a poem by Emma Lazarus, enunciates clearly what we all believed the United States stood for in the world:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to be free—“

It said nothing about discriminating against people who were HIV positive. That shameful quarantine took a hostile act by some prejudice members of Congress 20 years ago – including the late Senator Jesse Helms – acting out of the anti-AIDS hysteria of the 1980’s.

This week, the House of Representatives and the President of the United States, can scrub out a despicable blot from America’s history, by approving the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which passed the US Senate last week. The PEPFAR bill, which allocates $48 billion to fight AIDS globally, and $2 billion to focus on health issues of American Indians, includes two other important provisions:

· One to ease the US HIV/AIDS travel restrictions;

· The other, overturning an existing law that requires one-third of funding for HIV/AIDS prevention is spent on abstinence only programs.

Until the travel ban upon HIV positive visitors and immigrants to the U.S. is lifted, our country is continuing a harsh, hateful, discriminatory policy practiced by such countries as Libya and the Sudan. But even if the House and President approve the bill, the travel ban may still be used to keep HIV positive people out of the United States, if the Department of Health & Human Services decides to continue to keep them out, or drags its feet over implementation of the new provision until a new Administration comes into power in Washington.

Despite a pronouncement by HHS’ own CDC in 1991 that “admission of people with HIV would not significantly increase the risk of HIV infection to the US population,” Congress turned the ban into a law two years later. As it now stands, HIV/AIDS is the only medical condition specifically enumerated in US Immigration Law as a bar to getting into this country.

The International AIDS Conference held in Toronto two years ago—and the one scheduled to begin next week in Mexico City—a major international health conference not held in the US over the past two decades because of our discriminatory ban—are two powerful reminders that the rest of the civilized world has moved past hating and fearing people who are HIV positive. It’s long past time we did, too.

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