For more than 20 years an American HIV Travel and Immigration Ban has fuelled stigma, discrimination and misinformation.
But on 30 October last year President Barack Obama cancelled this ban, as he had promised to do.
“HIV infection will no longer be an ineligibility when foreign citizens apply for a visa to travel to the United States. Additionally, HIV testing will no longer be required for medical examinations for visa purposes,” the American diplomatic mission in SA announced on its website.
The US ban was shared by countries like Saudi Arabia and Libya. When it was repealed, US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said: “When it comes to ending the stigma of HIV/AIDS, we’ve been one of only 12 countries who, by their policies, still enable the myth that HIV/AIDS is a threat.
“Lifting the HIV “entry ban” represents… a blow against stigma.”
The entry restrictions on foreigners with HIV have disqualified the US from hosting prestigious international AIDS conferences for more than two decades. The last conference was held in San Francisco in 1990.
The same month the restrictions were lifted, the International AIDS Society announced that Washington DC will host the XIX International AIDS Conference in July 2012.
DC is the headquarters of the US Global AIDS Coordinator (which directs PEPFAR – President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and the National Institutes of Health.
IAS president Dr Julio Montaner stated at the time: “We are extremely pleased that the United States’ new entry policy for people living with HIV reflects its key role in global efforts to combat AIDS.”
The biennial AIDS conference this year will be held in Vienna in Austria.
The first ever convention for people living with HIV/AIDS will take place in Midrand on Friday, initiated by the outstanding HIV activist Pholokgolo Ramothwala, who has been living with HIV for the past 11 years.
He says: “Positive Convention is a conference about living with HIV/AIDS for people living with HIV or AIDS. Its theme is based on the premise: ‘No one knows and understands the challenges of living with HIV or AIDS than those who are living with the virus’.
“It will address social and workplace issues faced by people living with HIV/AIDS, that is, stigma, discrimination, alcohol abuse, treatment adherence, reproductive rights and legal issues amongst others. The topic ‘Young professionals living with HIV/AIDS’ will be given a special focus.”
Ramothwala is expecting about 300 people to attend the conference, which will also focus on the role that people with HIV can play in prevention efforts and as role models in promoting healthy lifestyles and self confidence.
High profile speakers like the Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, SANAC CEO Dr Nono Simelela, Constitutional Court Judge Edwin Cameron, and Dr Mary Fanning, the US Health Attaché, will speak at the meeting.
Soul City, the Positive Women’s Network, PEPFAR agencies, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USAID and Johns Hopkins Health and Education South Africa are supporting this initiative.
More than five million South Africans are HIV positive, according to the 2008 HSRC national survey.
This is my 5th Aids Conference in Durban.
The 1st was the World Aids Conference in 2000 when Nkosi Johnson, then 11, called for better access to treatment for people with HIV/Aids like himself and an end to discrimination. It was an unforgettable speech. When he died in 2001, South Africa and the world mourned the loss of an HIV hero.
The 2003 Aids conference was another landmark event. At that conference HIV/Aids doctors and activists demanded antiretroviral treatment, urgently. The same week as the conference, on the Friday night, Cabinet promised that they would roll out treatment.
High on the agenda for the 2009 Aids conference is the difficult issue of prevention – how to make prevention work. And the revolutionary idea of annual testing and early antiretroviral treatment to stop the epidemic.
Another major issue is sustainable funding and steady drug supplies for the antiretroviral programme which, Aids Law Project director Mark Heywood warns, is buckling under the load.
On the activist agenda is lobbying support for the smart, efficient, dedicated and courageous Health Minister Barbara Hogan, who is under fire for publicly criticising the South African government’s decision to refuse the Dalai Lama a visa. She is a rare leader: a principled politician. And everyone I’ve spoken to here wants Hogan and her impressive deputy, Dr Molefi Sefularo, to be re-appointed.
Now the drums are rolling for the opening session, at which Emiritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Luyanda Ngcoba will be delivering the Nkosi Johnson. Time to go.