U.S. Spurs Hopes of An End to HIV Tests

In an indication that Russia may end mandatory HIV tests for foreign residents, government officials said Thursday that they were considering replicating pending U.S. legislation that would lift a ban on HIV-positive visitors to that country.

The government's top AIDS official and other advocates for people infected with HIV said it was high time that the Russian restrictions be lifted.

At present, no plans are in the works to rescind a 1995 law that requires foreign nationals to pass an HIV test to receive a visa to stay in Russia for longer than three months, said a spokeswoman for the Health and Social Development Ministry.

Ministry officials, however, are keeping a close eye on legislation winding its way through the U.S. Congress that would end a 1987 ban on HIV-positive visitors to the United States. A ministry official said the ministry was waiting to see the details of the final U.S. bill before considering its own steps.

"It is not clear yet whether the ban will be rescinded completely or the legislation will be changed through a number of amendments," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the ministry's internal workings with the media.

The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved AIDS legislation that would rescind a law that bars HIV-positive foreigners from visiting or seeking residency in the United States. "Our government still treats individuals with HIV/AIDS as modern day lepers, categorically banning these individuals from entering into the U.S.," said Senator Gordon Smith, a Republican who sponsored the initiative with Democratic Senator John Kerry, Reuters reported.

The bill still needs to be reconciled with AIDS legislation approved by the House before it can go to President George W. Bush for his signature.

"If they will do it in the States, then it is very likely that it can happen in Russia too," said Vadim Pokrovsky, head of the Federal AIDS Center and the country's top AIDS official. "Even China recently changed that policy."

China recently lifted a ban on HIV-positive foreigners, leaving Russia among a dozen countries, including the United States, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Libya, that bar long-term stays and immigration for HIV-positive people.

European Union members and even some former Soviet republics such as Azerbaijan have no entry restrictions for people with HIV.

Pokrovsky said supporters of the ban always cite the U.S. example. "They say something like, 'If the U.S. keeps it, then there must be a reason for it and all the more so for Russia,'" he said.

He criticized the ban as a "violation of human rights because it limits the freedom of movement."

HIV testing is not required for visits of up to three months and for those who enter the country with tourist visas, said Konstantin Poltoranin, a spokesman for the Federal Migration Service.

"If an HIV test done in Russia reveals that a person has HIV, the law says we have to deport this person, for example, a student, from the country," he said.

There is no public health rationale for this policy, said Valery Zubov, a State Duma deputy and a member of a government working group on HIV/AIDS.

"Tourists who enter the country might also be infected with HIV, and those who come for less than three months also have enough time to pass the virus on to somebody else," he said.

Legislation to lift the ban would face an uphill battle, though, he said. "It is not popular to lobby for the interests of AIDS/HIV people in the Duma, but bans and barriers that create the illusion that the problem is being tackled are easy to introduce," he said.

The ban has a stigmatizing, not preventive, effect, said Dr. Corinna Reinicke, coordinator of the World Health Organization's HIV/AIDS program in Russia. "The International AIDS Society condemns such a ban as discriminatory. In fact, we have established a policy of not holding our conferences in countries with such policies," she said.

When enshrined in government policies or legislation, HIV-related stigma and discrimination are particularly harmful, she said, calling them "one of the major obstacles to an effective response to HIV."

Russia's ban was adopted in the mid-1990s, a time of ignorance and fear about HIV in the country, said Avet Khachaturyan, director of the Transatlantic Partners Against AIDS in Russia and Ukraine.

"To address the problem, the state should create a policy of openness and go forward by spreading proper information regarding the ways the disease is transmitted," he said.

"We should understand that bans do not work but urge some people to hide their HIV status," he said.

Government officials contacted Thursday could not say whether a lifting of the HIV ban might lead to an end of tests for diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, syphilis and leprosy, which foreigners are required to take to obtain work permits.