BEIJING – China has lifted a two-decade-old ban on people with HIV and AIDS from entering the country, just as it is about to welcome the world to the Shanghai Expo.
The decision announced by China’s Cabinet, the State Council, follows similar moves by the United States and South Korea to eliminate travel restrictions for people with the HIV virus. Both lifted their bans on visitors with HIV in January.
Dr. Wu Zunyou, director of the National Center for AIDS/STD Control and Prevention said the move would help reduce the stigma that people in China who have HIV or AIDS face, still a serious problem despite highly publicized yearly visits to AIDS patients by Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. As in many other countries, the stigma prevents many people reluctant from getting tested.
China’s ban had been launched based on “limited knowledge” of HIV at the time and proved inconvenient for the country when hosting international events, the State Council said, according to a statement posted on its website. The Shanghai Expo begins Saturday and runs for six months.
The ban was implemented “at a time when HIV/AIDS was relatively new, and our understanding about HIV/AIDS has since accumulated,” Wu said in a phone interview.
Despite greater openness, the government remains sensitive about the disease, regularly cracking down on activists and patients who seek more support and rights.
The State Council said the government passed amendments on April 19, revising the Border Quarantine Law as well as China’s Law on Control of the Entry and Exit of Aliens. The changes were effective immediately.
The move also includes scrapping entry restrictions for people with other sexually transmitted diseases and leprosy. The State Council said the government realized such restrictions had limited effect on preventing and controlling the spread of diseases in the country.
Entry restrictions, however, remain on people with “serious” mental illnesses, infectious tuberculosis and “infectious diseases likely to cause significant harm to public health,” the State Council said. The Cabinet did not immediately respond to faxed questions.
The HIV virus that causes AIDS gained a foothold in China largely due to unsanitary blood plasma-buying schemes and tainted transfusions in hospitals. Health authorities say sex has overtaken drug abuse as the main way HIV is transmitted.
AIDS was the top killer among infectious diseases in China for the first time in 2008, a fact that may reflect improved reporting of HIV/AIDS statistics in recent years.
Government statistics show that by the end of October 2009, the number of Chinese confirmed to be living with HIV-AIDS was 319,877, up from 264,302 in 2008 and 135,630 in 2005. But Health Minister Chen Zhu has said the actual level of infections is probably near 740,000.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed China’s decision and urged other countries that still bar people with HIV to change their laws as soon as possible. “Punitive policies and practices only hamper the global AIDS response,” he said in a statement.
Prominent AIDS activist Edwin Cameron, a judge on South Africa’s Constitutional Court, also welcomed the removal of the travel ban, according to a statement from a group representing United Nations staffers living with HIV. Cameron, who has HIV, traveled to China twice in the last year and a half and met with officials about the ban.
Cameron said the visa restrictions were “illogical” and “nearly led to the cancellation of my last trip to China because of a misunderstanding between government departments.”
“I am relieved this will never happen again to anyone living with HIV,” he said in the statement.
Last month, China denied a visa to an HIV-positive Australian writer, Robert Dessaix, who had hoped to attend a writers’ tour in the country, prompting a group of nearly 100 prominent Australian authors to sign a petition condemning Beijing and demanding that Chinese authorities apologize to Dessaix. Authors who signed included Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee and Booker Prize winner Thomas Keneally.