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HIV Experts Criticize Australian PM's Suggestion for Ban on Entry of HIV-infected

HIV experts in Australia have criticized Prime Minister John Howard for calling for a ban on the entry of HIV-infected persons and asserted that there was no evidence to// suggest migrants were responsible for increasing HIV infections in the country.

Prime Minister Howard had made the suggestion in an interview to a radio station in Victoria state, which has seen a sharp rise in HIV cases.

Don Baxter, speaking on behalf of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations, noted that HIV tests were already among health checks prospective immigrants were given, and most HIV-positive applicants were rejected on the grounds that they could pose an unfair burden on the public health system. "It's very tight already," Baxter said.

Dr. Chris Lemoh, an infectious disease specialist who is working on a doctorate on the spread of AIDS among African immigrants in Victoria, said excluding people with HIV should be condemned.

"It's a hysterical overreaction, it mixes racism with a phobia about infectious disease," he said. "To not allow people to come on the basis of any health condition is immoral, it's unethical and it's impractical to enforce."

Yusef Azard of the UK's National Aids Trust, said tighter controls on immigration would not necessarily have an effect on the rate of infection.

"The United States has had these sorts of strict entry restrictions on HIV for many, many years," he said.

"It's got the highest rate of HIV in the developed world. So it doesn't actually do any good. People go underground. Stigma and discrimination increases in the country and makes the response to HIV all the more difficult."

Victorian Health Minister Bronwyn Pike too had questioned the adequacy of immigration checks, saying the increase in Victoria's HIV notifications was partially due to the arrival of HIV-positive people from overseas.

She did say 70 of the 334 new HIV notifications in Victoria l ast year involved migrants. But of them, 50 were from interstate and 20 from overseas.

Victorian AIDS Council president Mike Kennedy said it was his understanding that 11 of the 20 overseas immigrants were born in Australia or New Zealand, leaving only nine people with HIV who entered the state from overseas. "That number is incredibly low," he said. "In Australia the bulk of the epidemic is gay men."

Meanwhile Justice Michael Kirby,a prominent Australian judge, told a HIV focused conference in Auckland early this week that the Pacific region no longer had the luxury of "living in denial".

He urged Pacific leaders and policy makers to tackle the difficult and controversial issues.

Some strategies for combating HIV such as promotion and knowledge of condoms and decriminalisation of sex workers were controversial and therefore often given less priority, Justice Kirby said.

"But a lot of painful and difficult steps need to be taken, " he stressed.

There was no cure on the horizon for HIV and the expanding cost of anti-retroviral drugs would put increasing pressure on the international community and national institutions.

More time and effort needed to be spent stopping people from getting infected, he said.

The 15 Pacific countries involved are Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, Nauru, Niue, Tokelau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Kiribati, Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and Cook Islands.

UNAIDS in its 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic identified an estimated 78,000 people in the Pacific - including from Australia and New Zealand - were living with HIV in 2005, representing an increase of 12,000 from 2003. /V

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