UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon put it pretty bluntly when he said that stigma is the number one barrier to public action on HIV. Because of the global stigma surrounding HIV, people living with HIV are often abandoned by their family and community members, and sometimes don’t get the medical treatment they need due to doctors’ prejudices. Several countries even ban HIV-positive people from traveling into the country.

Until last week, China was among the countries barring HIV-positive visitors. The two-decade-old ban was based on limited knowledge and understanding of HIV. But now, the ban has been lifted and foreigners with HIV and AIDS are free to enter the country. China’s State Council made a smart move, realizing that the ban was not preventing the spread of HIV and made it difficult for China to host international events.

It’s not like visitors to China are the only people within China’s borders with HIV. There are approximately 740,000 people with HIV living in China. UNAIDS suggests policies for HIV prevention include educating people about HIV, encouraging safe sex, and destigmatizing and removing prejudices surrounding HIV so people will be more open about their HIV status. Barring HIV-positive travelers doesn’t necessarily line up with those stated goals.

This move is a big step forward for China, where homosexuality is not very widely accepted. Gay sex was illegal until 1997 and homosexuality was included in the list of psychological disorders until 2001. China has shut down a number of gay events, including a gay pageant and several events during a gay pride celebration. By lifting the HIV travel ban, at least China is putting an end to one form of discrimination against a minority

The lifting of China’s ban on HIV-positive travelers comes only a few months after the United States made the same move. China had temporarily lifted the ban for large international events such as the 2008 Olympics, but their action this week finally repealed the ban for good, leading up to the six-month Shanghai World Expo, with an expected 70 million attendees.

Public health policies should be based on legitimate concerns about public safety, not based on fear. HIV travel bans are wrong. They are a form of government discrimination against people with HIV, they do not prevent the spread of HIV, and they should not be tolerated or accepted as valid public health measures. According to UNAIDS, “stigma and discrimination constitute one of the greatest barriers to dealing effectively with the epidemic.”

Here’s to China helping to chip away at those barriers.

Photo credit: http2007

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