WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Friday that a U.S. travel ban against people infected with the HIV virus will be overturned early next year.
The order will be completed on Monday, Obama said, finishing a process begun during the administration of former President George W. Bush.
The United States is one of about a dozen countries that bar entry to travelers based on their HIV status. The ban has been in place for more than 20 years. Obama said it will be lifted just after the new year, after a waiting period of about 60 days.
"If we want to be a global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it," Obama said at the White House before signing a bill to extend the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program. Begun in 1990, the program provides medical care, medication and support services to about half a million Americans with HIV or AIDS, mostly low-income people.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control received more than 20,000 responses, about 18,500 of which were a form letter in support of the change. The others were individual comments, including some criticism of lifting the ban. Readers who want to review the remarks can go to http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dq/laws_regs/fed_reg/remove-hiv/index_hiv.htm and click on public comments.
Critics of proposal have said they were leery of the change, which could allow an average of 4,275 HIV-infected people into the country annually, with a lifetime medical cost of about $94 million for this admitted during the first year, according to early CDC estimates.
But health officials said the move brings the U.S. in line with current medical thinking.
“Good riddance to this discriminatory rule that had no basis in public health or sound science,” said Dr. Arlene Bardeguez, outgoing president of the HIV Medicine Association. “This long-overdue move brings the U.S. in line with current scientific and international standards of public health and will lessen the painful stigma and discrimination suffered by HIV-positive people.”
The bill is named for an teenager who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion at age 13. Ryan White went on to fight AIDS-related discrimination against him and others like him in the late 1980s and to help educate Americans about the disease. He died in April 1990 at 18.
His mother, Jeanne White-Ginder, attended the signing ceremony, as did several members of Congress and HIV/AIDS activists.
In 1987, at a time of widespread fear and ignorance about HIV, the Department of Health and Human Services added the disease to the list of communicable diseases that disqualified a person from entering the United States.
Tried to reverse ban in 1991
The department tried in 1991 to reverse its decision but was opposed by Congress, which in 1993 went the other way and made HIV infection the only medical condition explicitly listed under immigration law as grounds for inadmissibility to the country.
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The law effectively has kept out thousands of students, tourists and refugees and complicated the adoption of children with HIV. No major international AIDS conference has been held in the United States since 1993 because HIV-positive activists or researchers could not enter the country.
Obama said lifting the ban "is a step that will save lives" by encouraging people to get tested and to get treatment.
Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, said the ban pointlessly has barred people from the United States, and separated families with no benefit to the public health.
"Now, those families can be reunited, and the United States can put its mouth where its money is: ending the stigma that perpetuates HIV transmission, supporting science and welcoming those who seek to build a life in this country," said Tiven, whose organization works for fairness in immigration for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive people.
Under a program begun by Bush, the United States spends billions of dollars annually to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa.
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