China Lifts Travel Ban on AIDS Patients Ahead of Shanghai Expo, UN Says
China ended a decades-old ban on visitors with HIV days before the opening of the Shanghai Expo, the biennial fair designed to showcase different cultures.
The restriction, lifted yesterday, came as the government recognized it had a “very limited effect” on prevention and control, the state-run Xinhua News Agency reported, citing an official from the State Council, China’s Cabinet.
The World Health Organization called the decision a “significant step in the right direction” and said it was made in the lead-up to the May 1 start of the Expo, which Xinhua estimates may attract 4 million overseas travelers. Foreigners with sexually transmitted diseases and leprosy will also be allowed to enter China under the new travel rules, issued by the State Council in a statement on its Web site.
“People gradually realized that restricting the entry of foreigners with AIDS, sexually transmitted disease and leprosy to the country has very limited effect on the work of domestic disease prevention and control,” the official said in the Xinhua report. Such a ban “had become an inconvenience for China to hold various international activities,” it said.
China had an estimated 740,000 people living with HIV in 2009, UNAIDS, a Geneva-based United Nations agency, reported this month. About 54,000 people have died from the AIDS-causing infection in the country, it said.
The latest rules also narrow the travel restriction on people with tuberculosis, to those with an infectious form of the lung disease. The government of China, which previously banned all mentally ill travelers from entering the country, said only severe cases are now barred.
Foreigners with other transmittable diseases that may harm public health won’t be allowed to enter China, the State Council said, without elaborating.
The country stipulated entry and exit rules in 1986 to ban foreigners who may “damage national security or social order.” Patients with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and sexually transmitted diseases were specifically barred in 1989.
“China’s decision to categorically remove HIV/AIDS from the list of conditions subject to entry restrictions is a significant step in the right direction,” Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general, said in the statement. “This decision should inspire other nations to change laws and policies that continue to discriminate against people living with HIV.”
The U.S. in October eliminated a similar 22-year ban on HIV patients entering the country, enabling the nation to host the world’s biggest AIDS conference, the International AIDS Society, for the first time in 2012.
China began acknowledging the importance of public health to national development and strengthened cooperation to fight contagious diseases after the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak, according to a study published yesterday in the Public Library of Science Journal, PLoS ONE.
“In a globalizing world, the Chinese government appears to have learned that its health policy will be scrutinized by the world,” researchers led by Lai-Ha Chan of the University of Technology Sydney said. “It has become more open to and actively participates in global health governance.”
Travel restrictions unnecessarily discriminate against patients and don’t protect people from infection, UNAIDS said in a statement yesterday. More than 50 countries and territories still impose travel restrictions on HIV patients, while 23 countries deport foreign patients when their HIV status is discovered, the UN agency said.
“It is an exciting time,” said Mitchell Warren, executive director of the New York-based AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group, in an e-mail. The change “is pretty significant, especially for China and the U.S., where exchanges -- both scientific and more generally -- are increasingly important.”
About 70 million local and overseas visitors are expected at the Shanghai Expo, which takes place through Oct. 31.
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