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President Obama Ends Discriminatory and Ineffective HIV Travel Entry Ban

On October 30, 2009 President Barack Obama announced the repeal of a 22-year old ban on entry into the country for people who are HIV-positive. Public health officials and HIV/AIDS advocates had been working to repeal the ban for two decades as they felt it was not only ineffective at combating the disease but that it also reinforced stigma and discrimination. “If we want to be a global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it,” the President said. “Now we talk about reducing the stigma of this disease, yet we’ve treated a visitor living with it as a threat.”[i] His announcement coincided with his signature to the Ryan White Treatment Extension Act of 2009, which funds HIV treatment and care programs for the uninsured and underinsured.[ii]

The process to repeal the ban began last year when President George W. Bush reauthorized the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which included legislation to revoke the statute which supported the ban.[iii]
First enacted by the Regan-era U.S. Public Health Service, the ban was the product of early misinformation and fear that the disease could be spread through physical and respiratory contact.[iv] The entry ban was further bolstered by legislation proposed by then-Republican Senator Jesse Helms and passed unanimously by Congress in 1993, adding HIV to the U.S. travel-exclusion list.[v]
The ban barred HIV-positive foreigners from both visiting and immigrating to the United States, requiring visitors to declare their HIV-status on their visa applications.[vi] Some effects of the law included “separations in families with HIV-positive members that came to live in this country and [discouraging] the adoption of children with the virus.”[vii] The travel ban also made the U.S. ineligible for hosting international HIV/AIDS conferences that bring researchers and advocates to the country; no such conference has been held in the United States since 1990.[viii]
Perhaps the most significant effect of the ban has been the discouragement of foreigners traveling to and already living in the United States from getting tested and accessing treatment for HIV/AIDS, undermining key efforts to combat the epidemic.[ix]
Kevin Robert Frost, CEO of amFAR, the foundation for AIDS Research, remarked, “We’re thrilled that the ban has been lifted based on science, reason, and human rights. Our hope is that this decision reflects a commitment to adopting more evidence-based policies when confronting the AIDS epidemic and developing a comprehensive national AIDS strategy.”[x]
Prior to President Obama’s announcement, the United States remained one of only seven countries worldwide, including Libya, Iraq and Saudi Arabia that strictly ban entry for people living with HIV.[xi] Still, some 67 countries maintain laws that generally limit the “entry, stay or residence of people living with HIV,” according to the International AIDS Society.[xii]
Mark Cloutier, CEO of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation commented on the news: “Today’s action by the president returns the United States to its rightful role as a leader in human rights and in the global struggle against HIV/AIDS.”[xiii]
In response to President Obama’s repeal of the HIV-entry ban, the International AIDS Society (IAS) has since announced that the XIX International AIDS Conference will be held in Washington, DC, in July 2012. The conference is expected to bring more than 25,000 delegates from over 200 countries, including 2,500 journalists to Washington to share the latest scientific developments and formulate new strategies for combating the epidemic in the future. IAS President-Elect Dr. Elly Katabira, who will serve as the International Chair of AIDS 2012, remarked on the announcement: “The return of the conference to the United States is the result of years of dedicated advocacy to end a misguided policy based on fear, rather than science, and represents a significant victory for public health and human rights.”[xiv]


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[i] Julie Preston, “Obama Lifts a Ban on Entry Into U.S. by H.I.V.-Positive People,” New York Times, 30 October 2009, accessed 6 November 2009 <>.

[ii]  San Francisco AIDS Foundation, “San Francisco AIDS Foundation Hails President Obama for Lifting HIV/AIDS Travel Ban,” Press Release published 30 October 2009, access 6 November 6, 2009 <>.  

[iii] Preston, “Obama Lifts a Ban.”

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Garance Franke-Ruta, “White House announces end to HIV travel ban,” Washington Post, 30 October 2009, accessed 6 November 2009 <>.

[vi] International AIDS Society, “IAS Applauds White House Announcement of Repeal of the United States’,” Press Release published 30 October 2009, accessed 6 November 2009 <>. 

[vii] Preston, “Obama Lifts a Ban.”

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Franke-Ruta, “White House announces end.”

[xi] San Francisco AIDS Foundation, “San Francisco.”

[xii] International AIDS Society, “IAS Applauds White House.”

[xiii] San Francisco AIDS Foundation, “San Francisco.”

[xiv] “The International AIDS Society Announces Washington, DC, as Site of the XIX International AIDS Conference in July 2012,” International AIDS Society, 30 November 2009, accessed 4 December 2009 <>.