HIV-Related Bigotry in Politics

December 12, 2007

By now you may have heard that Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, in a 1992 Associated Press questionnaire completed while he was running for the Senate, advocated for the isolation of HIV positive individuals, stating:

“If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague. It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population, and in which this deadly disease for which there is no cure is being treated as a civil rights issue instead of the true health crisis it represents.”

He also seemed to tie his thinking on HIV/AIDS solely to homosexuality, stating, “I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk.”

Huckabee has since refused to recant or retract the statement, insisting that he didn’t mean HIV/AIDS patients should be locked up, but not indicating how he thought they otherwise would have been “isolated.”

Is Huckabee’s “it was 1992” rhetoric implying that he didn’t know better at the time and that there was still confusion about HIV transmission valid? As Salon notes, a report from the Surgeon General [PDF] in 1986 clearly stated, “AIDS is not spread by common everyday contact but by sexual contact…We would know by now if AIDS were passed by casual, non-sexual contact.” The report went on to assert, “Quarantine has no role in the management of AIDS because
AIDS is not spread by casual contact.” This report pre-dates Huckabee’s statement by six years. Personally, I expect a candidate to find out the facts before advocating for the isolation of Americans.

Meanwhile, critics are reacting to a proposed change in travel restrictions for those with HIV/AIDS. Current law makes any individual inadmissable to the United States “who is determined (in accordance with regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to have a communicable disease of public health significance, which shall include infection with the etiologic agent for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.” This provision has been criticized given the issue we reviewed above – that HIV/AIDS is known to not be spread by casual contact.

On World Aids Day 2006, President Bush called for the Department of Homeland Security to revisit HIV-related travel restrictions to allow for “short visits.” A DHS document released on November 6, 2007 described the newly proposed rule, which has been criticized by Democratic House members and other organizations. It would require an HIV-positive visa applicant to demonstrate that there is no anticipated need for medical care while in the United States, has been counseled on the condition, understands transmission routes, and “establish that he or she possesses sufficient assets or insurance, that is accepted in the United States, that would cover any medical care that the applicant might require in the event of illness at any time while in the United States,” among other restrictions

As a representative for Physicians for Human Rights notes, “The travel ban is nothing more than a continuation of misunderstood, and offensive, practices that violate human rights and contribute to the stigma that fuels this pandemic.” With regards to the need to demonstrate that the individual will not use the healthcare system, PHR points out, “Such stipulations are not placed on visitors with heart conditions and other costly medical problems.” Failure to comply with the requirement could result in the individual being permanently banned from accessing the U.S.

Likewise, a 2004 joint statement from UNAIDS and the Institute of Medicine recommends against blanket travel restrictions, concluding that “HIV-related travel restrictions are an ineffective and discriminatory anachronism of a by-gone era.” The document [PDF] presents a compelling case against these restrictions, and is well worth a read given the current Dept. of Homeland Security consideration of the topic.

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