China has repealed its long-standing HIV travel ban. The move comes just days before the opening of a major trade exposition in Shanghai, which is expected to attract millions of international visitors.
Announcing the removal of the ban, the country’s State Council said that it had been introduced when there had been “limited knowledge of HIV”. Continuing the ban was “inconvenient” for a country hosting international events, said the State Council.
Just how inconvenient the ban could be was shown earlier this year when HIV-positive Australian author, Robert Dessaix, was refused entry into the country to attend a literary festival in March.
The refusal to grant Dessaix a visa threw a spotlight on China’s entry restrictions for those with HIV. Although it had been hoped that the travel ban would be repealed before the opening of the Shanghai Expo in May, the refusal to grant a visa to Dessaix made some doubt that this would happen.
Edwin Cameron, a justice of the South Africa’s Constitutional Court who is HIV-positive, welcomed the removal of the “illogical” ban. He added that he had visited China twice in the last year and the travel restrictions had nearly caused the cancellation of his last trip because of visa problems.
The removal of the travel ban follows the repeal of similar restrictions banning individuals with leprosy or sexually transmitted infections entering the country.
A total of 51 countries impose some form of entry or residence restrictions on people with HIV. This includes 16 countries which have rules affecting even short visits, and countries on all continents impose bans on residence.
Such travel and residence restrictions have been consistently condemned by UNAIDS for being ineffectual as a means of disease control, and for increasing stigma against people with HIV.
In the statement announcing the repeal of its ban, the Chinese government said that it had realised that restricting entry for people with HIV did little to control or prevent the spread of HIV.
According to official Chinese government figures released in 2009, just under 320,000 HIV infections had been diagnosed in the country. However, Health Minister Chen Zhu said that the actual figure is probably closer to 740,000.
Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the UN, welcomed China’s action, and urged the reconsideration of the remaining travel bans.
“Punitive policies and practices only hamper the global AIDS response,” he said.
South Korea also recently removed its travel ban. This has been condemned as an “empty gesture”, as foreign nationals working in the country are still required to have mandatory HIV tests.