The federal government moved one step closer to officially ending its long-standing ban on HIV-positive individuals visiting or moving to the United States, a move hailed by gay rights and AIDS advocates Monday.
The Department of Health and Human Services will issue proposed regulations this week that would remove HIV from the list of "communicable diseases of public health significance" that prevent foreign nationals from entering the country.
"This is the penultimate step," said Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality in Washington, D.C. "These regulations are a long time coming. There hasn't been a major HIV scientific conference in the U.S. in decades because of this ban."
A 45-day comment period begins this week before a final review and implementation of the new regulations.
David Kilmnick of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth said, "It's about time we become a little more forward-thinking on those living with HIV."
Last year President George W. Bush signed into a law a bill that removed a statutory ban on foreign visitors and immigrants infected with HIV. But advocates were worried the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would not remove HIV from its list of "communicable diseases of public health significance" that affect immigration policy. HIV was added to the list - which includes tuberculosis, leprosy and gonorrhea - in 1987.
Aaron Glatt, president of New Island Hospital and a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America, said HIV is clearly not as contagious as tuberculosis. "A person who doesn't engage in risky behavior is not going to be at risk," said Glatt. But he said though the policy makes sense from a compassion point of view, it could lead to financial burdens if patients come to this country for care. "One needs to make sure that the communities that are going to be serving these patients aren't adversely affected from an economic point of view," he said.
The United States is one of about a dozen countries with such bans, including Saudi Arabia and Sudan, said Allison Herwitt of Human Rights Campaign in Washington. China reversed its ban before the 2008 Olympics.
Short-term visitors to the United States are asked if they have a communicable disease of public health significance. Those who want to become legal permanent residents by applying for a green card are subject to a medical exam.
The only way around the ban is to apply for a waiver. "It's almost impossible now for people to be able to get a waiver," said Karen Ross of the Long Island Association for AIDS Care. "People coming here for business trips are forced to disclose their status" for a waiver, she added.
Catherine Hart, executive vice president of the group, said the rule will help remove "the stigma and the discrimination that's associated with the disease."