Ban on the Run

D.C. man lauds travel-restriction victory in his global fight against HIV/AIDS

Anyone reading the coverage of the 17th International AIDS Conference, held Aug. 4 to 8 in Mexico City, likely spotted the quote by Ron MacInnis, director of policy and programs at the International AIDS Society (IAS), the group organizing the conference.

His quote carried far and wide by the Associated Press, MacInnis said of HIV-related travel bans:

”It’s blatantly discriminatory to single out people with HIV. It’s stupid and ridiculous. These restrictions are really impeding our ability to control HIV and AIDS.”

Ron McInnis
Ron MacInnis

Some Washingtonians reading that coverage were already familiar with MacInnis, a gay man with two residences: one in the District’s Petworth neighborhood and the other in Geneva, Switzerland, where the IAS is based.

While his jet-setting lifestyle may sound glamorous, MacInnis is not racking up frequent-flier miles in the pursuit of lucrative business deals or luxury living. Instead, MacInnis crisscrosses the globe in the fight to secure and promote the rights of those living with HIV/AIDS.

Recently, in part because of the work that he and his colleagues have done on behalf of those individuals around the world, the traveling aspect of his job has gotten a bit easier. A few weeks ago, it was announced that the U.S. government has taken the first steps in repealing the two-decades-old ban that prevents people with HIV from legally entering the United States, mandating that HIV-positive foreigners who have not secured a special waiver to the policy be deported.

”It’s been a dark spot on U.S. foreign policy for a long time to discriminate against people with HIV,” MacInnis said Aug. 13, during a brief return to Washington after the Mexico City conference. ”I think now we will have more integrity as a world leader on HIV/AIDS issues.”

The ban goes further than just making it difficult for HIV-positive individuals to enter the country, with ramifications both numerous and far-reaching. MacInnis tells the story, for example, of local friends who adopted an HIV-positive child from southern Africa, leading to myriad obstacles — and substantial legal bills — related to the HIV policy.

Another complication MacInnis points to is the example of HIV-positive people who may skirt the travel ban when entering the country by lying about their status and leaving their HIV-related medications behind to avoid being discovered, leading to obvious health risks for these visitors. Further, many immigrants may fear HIV testing because of the deportation provision, increasing the chance of unknowingly contracting and spreading the disease. And international activists and leaders living with the disease may be denied entry to U.S. health conferences because of the ban.

MacInnis says the federal government’s recent moves to lift the ban weren’t just the result of domestic pressure, also crediting a concerted effort made by many actors and organizations in the international community, such as the IAS, the U.N. and the Human Rights Campaign.

MacInnis, 42, has been involved in social justice nearly as long as the ban has been in place. After studying political science and journalism at a small, state school in Massachusetts, MacInnis joined the Peace Corps, which allowed him the opportunity to work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire.

”I really got the chance to see how people lived day-to-day, in a very basic sense, as a community, amid poverty and without all of the amenities that we have,” he says of his years in Africa. ”That certainly changed my life and my perspective on things.”

In 1992, when he learned that he himself was HIV-positive, MacInnis says he began focusing more on health issues, bringing with him his international perspective. During this time he found that the global AIDS crisis actually worked to bring the international community together.

”At that time, there was a lot of attention on the epidemic in the U.S., but there was also a growing awareness of what was happening in the rest of the world,” he says.

MacInnis put that new perspective to work in Washington for the Global Health Council, a lobbying group focusing on international health issues.

”We tried to raise awareness in the U.S. public about the AIDS epidemic in the rest of the world. HIV/AIDS has been quite interesting historically because there are all kinds of diseases that kill people in places like Africa, but it wasn’t until AIDS came along that the U.S. truly understood a disease that was killing people all around the world.”

Now, as a leader with the IAS, MacInnis helps to bring human-rights activists, doctors, scientists, politicians and HIV-positive people from around the globe together every two years at the International AIDS Conference.

MacInnis says that another positive side effect of the United States repealing the HIV-related travel restrictions is that the conference, held annually before switching to its current two-year cycle, may again be held in America. The conference was last held in the United States in 1990.

Speaking of this year’s conference, MacInnis added that a turn less tangible than lifting the ban — though certainly valuable — was the tone. He describes it as being very supportive of fighting homophobia.

”All of the world’s leaders had to deal with gay issues [at the conference],” he says. ”African leaders, Caribbean leaders, Middle-Eastern leaders – people who haven’t really addressed HIV/AIDS in such a way. There are a lot of challenges to be faced in these regions, as there are in most parts of the world, but [countering homophobia] is being talked about and being pushed for the first time, which is amazing.”

There is one more step before the U.S. travel ban is officially repealed: The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services must conduct an open comment and review period. Additionally, the Global Database on HIV-Related Travel Restriction reports that 67 of 184 studied countries have some form of HIV-related travel restriction in place. MacInnis emphasizes that, although President Bush may have signed the order rescinding the U.S. ban July 31, there is much more work to be done.

”Individuals can contact AIDS Action and the Department of Health & Human Services and find out how to get involved in the comment period.”

For more information about HIV travel restrictions, visit www.hivtravel.org. For AIDS Action, visit www.aidsaction.org. For the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, visit www.hhs.org.