Steve Connor: Lifting HIV travel ban is long overdue

Reagan's speech epitomised his administration's blind faith in the ability of technology to solve almost any global problem

Finally, after 22 years, the United States has corrected a mistake that its scientists had recognised at the outset. President Obama has finally lifted the ban on HIV-positive people entering the country. He said the ban was not compatible with America's plans to be an international leader in the fight against Aids, epitomised by the country hosting a bi-annual global HIV/Aids summit for the first time in 2012.

It was Ronald Reagan who instituted the travel ban following his first speech on Aids at a gala dinner in a Washington hotel attended by film stars and dignitaries in May 1987, six years after American scientists had identified the disease in gay men. Reagan's speech epitomised his administration's blind faith in the ability of technology to solve almost any global problem – he also believed it would be possible to defend the US against a nuclear attack with a "star wars" defensive shield.

This time, however, Reagan thought that HIV testing would protect America from infected foreigners, a strangely illogical argument given that the US at that time had more confirmed cases of HIV and Aids than anywhere else in the world. It was a case of stable doors and bolting horses.

Reagan's mistake, which many of his own scientists privately recognised at the time, was to label Aids as a "contagious" disease, in other words a highly infectious illness passed on by casual contact with an infected person. The US Department of Health and Human Services and the US Centres for Disease Control tacitly accepted this long-standing error last year when they paved the way for the ban to be removed.

But these two US government agencies have been less than honest about the original motivations for the ban. "When the regulation was created in 1987, far less was known about how HIV is spread and what put people at risk for HIV. Health experts now know that HIV is not spread through casual contact like hugging or shaking hands, through the air, food or water," they said last year.

In fact, it was already well established when Reagan made his speech in 1987 that HIV was spread by intimate sexual contact or the transfusion of blood products. There was no evidence of HIV being transmissible through casual contact and there was no reason in 1987 for the travel ban, and certainly no excuse for it not being lifted in the intervening 22 years. The lifting of the travel ban is long overdue given that it has done nothing to protect the American public.

Heading towards the light

Mid winter has passed and the sun is once again set on course for rising ever higher into the midday sky. Winter of course is far from over, but at least the winter solstice has passed and those of us longing from an end to the long, dark nights of this time of the year can finally take comfort in the feeling that the worst is over. No wonder the winter solstice, and yuletide, was such an important pagan celebration, long before scientists ever came up with the notion of seasonal affective disorder.

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