Friday, July 14, 2006

Debating the HIV travel ban

Debating the HIV travel ban
By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz
Copyright by RedEye
Published June 14, 2006

The Department of Homeland Security's February decision to waive the HIV travel ban for the Gay Games has deepened a fissure between those who worry it will invite the spread of disease and those who think the ban is absurd.

Peter LaBarbera, executive director of Illinois Family Institute, has called for rescinding the waiver, which allows foreigners participating in the Gay Games to enter the country without disclosing their HIV status.

The U.S. has barred tourists and immigrants with HIV from entering the country since 1993. Waiving the ban is routine for events that draw large numbers of international visitors, such as conventions, the Olympics and the Gay Games when they were held in New York in 1994.

LaBarbera said the Gay Games promote promiscuity and that inviting HIV-positive visitors will help spread the virus. He noted that a couple of the sponsors are bathhouses, where men sometimes go to have sex.

"The extracurricular activities that come with the Gay Games pose a real health hazard to those involved and the surrounding community," he said.

Kevin Boyer, a Gay Games organizer, called LaBarbera's claims a "hateful and diversionary tactic" without any basis in medicine. The bathhouses, two of almost 300 sponsors, are part of the solution to the HIV crisis in that they provide condoms and anonymous HIV screenings, he said.

Michael Cook, president of Chicago's Howard Brown Health Center, said the way to stem the spread of HIV is to avoid unprotected sex and sharing needles-not keep people out of the country. He said it was "a sin" that the ban on HIV-positive travelers still exists, as it was based on early perceptions that HIV can be spread by casual contact.

But Stephen Brady, president of Roman Catholic Faithful, a Downstate organization, shares LaBarbera's concerns and opposes waiving the ban for the Games.

"One has no idea the people who are coming in-their practices, their beliefs," Brady said. "I would guess, more likely than not, [unprotected sex] is going to happen."

That's a ludicrous assumption to David Munar, associate director of the AIDS Foundation in Chicago, who said people are coming to play sports and those with HIV should be allowed to join in.

"To presume that people living with HIV are coming to Chicago or the U.S. to spread HIV is discriminatory at best and certainly xenophobic," Munar said.


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