China to ease travel restrictions on HIV-carriers

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BEIJING, Nov 8 (Reuters) China is to scrap immigration laws that restrict people with HIV/AIDS travelling to the country, a health ministry official and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria said today.

The travel restrictions have been a hindrance blocking people who are HIV-positive from entering China to attend conferences on AIDS and is seen as reinforcing stigmas against those living with the disease.

''China has decided to change its immigration laws, scrapping travel restrictions,'' Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund, told a news conference.

''The new law, which hopefully will be passed in the coming months, will be in line with the global conventions, which recognise that travel restrictions for HIV-positive people do not have any public health value,'' he said.

Vice Minister of Health Huang Jiefu did not give a timeline for the change, but said China was committed to making the amendment.

''Modifying laws and regulations is quite a complicated process and it takes some time. I must be very candid with you, that this process has not been completed yet,'' he said.

''But I would like to ask the international community and the media to rest assured that China would honour its commitment ...'' he said.

Both were speaking at a conference to announce the signing of a grant worth 5.8 million dollars over its first two years aimed at strengthening non-governmental and civil society organisations in China to scale up AIDS prevention efforts.

''It is hoped that through the implementation of the project, civil society and non-governmental organisations could be further encouraged to participate in the work against AIDS,'' said Huang.

But civil society AIDS activists are frequent subjects of harassment in China, despite government efforts to become more open about the disease.

Some have been barred from leaving the country to attend conferences, while others have been subject to restrictions from local authorities, who fear that publicising incidence of the virus will have a negative effect on their regions.

''We were told both by our colleagues from the Ministry of Health and by our colleagues from civil society that working together is a process that requires time and effort on both parts,'' said Kazatchkine.

China has about 650,000 people living with HIV. The Global Fund said that while the prevalence in China remains low, the situation in some pockets of the population was ''dire''.

''Preventing the spread of HIV among the homosexual population remains a challenge for the Chinese government,'' the organisation said in a statement, adding that more than half of new cases being reported in China were among homosexuals and commercial sex workers.

REUTERS MS RAI1533

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