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KERRY/SMITH: America’s unfair HIV/AIDS policy

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OP-ED:

There are approximately 32 million people outside of the United States living with HIV/AIDS. Since 2003, America has extended a helping hand to these individuals by spending more than $15 billion on the largest international health commitment ever to fight a single disease. Unfortunately, as we open our wallets to fund lifesaving treatments to those living with HIV/AIDS overseas, we will not open our doors.

Today, HIV is the only medical condition that renders people inadmissible to the United States. In fact, we are just one of 12 countries that prohibit, almost without exception, HIV-positive non-citizens from entering the country (China has recently overturned its ban). This policy places the United States in the same company as Sudan, Russia, Libya and Saudi Arabia.

Such a discriminatory policy has no basis in public health, let alone common sense.

We are proud to have introduced the HIV Nondiscrimination in Travel and Immigration Act to overturn this unfair policy.

There is no excuse for a law that goes out of its way to stigmatize a particular disease and separate parents from children, sisters from brothers, and people of all stripes from their work, travel and dreams of a better life.

We are glad that President Bush wants to weaken the ban - but we should simply strike it from the books so that HIV is considered like any other infectious disease. Our bill has been included in the Senate version of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) reauthorization bill and we hope that this legislation passes and is signed into law so we can finally get rid of this outdated policy.

The law we seek to overturn first came into being back in 1987, when a deadly, explosive epidemic spawned a climate of fear and ignorance that got the better of many well-intentioned people. A sense that HIV/AIDS was a dangerous disease that belonged exclusively to others - to people from another continent or those who practice a different lifestyle - hardened into a bunker mentality.

But in 2008, we know better. HIV is transmitted through sex or needle-sharing - not the casual contact that might lead a government to aggressively restrict movement. We have known better for years - which is why then-Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton also supported overturning the ban.

There is no just cause for treating those with HIV-AIDS as modern-day lepers, and many of us personally know at least one of the 1 million HIV-positive Americans who rise above the stigma of their disease to lead long and productive lives.

Laws denying freedom of movement to the HIV-positive aren't just immoral - they also hurt our ability to fight and understand the disease. The International AIDS Society, one of the most important groups dedicated to combating HIV/AIDS has held its last two biannual conferences in Canada and Mexico because it desperately wants American scientists to attend, but too many of its researchers and panelists cannot enter the country. Being able to host conferences like these is a crucial factor in - and an important symbol of - leading the world's fight against HIV/AIDS.

We have come a long way and we are proud of that. It wasn't that long ago when the name of this disease was rarely uttered in public. Today, the current president doesn't just talk about fighting HIV/AIDS, but works with Congress to put another $30 billion behind America's words.

Actions matter. Leading by example in the fight against HIV/AIDS has left millions in the developing world grateful to America for our life-saving help.

It's time we sent the same message by finally ending our needlessly discriminatory laws penalizing those with HIV/AIDS.

Sen. John Kerry is a Democrat from Massachusetts. Sen. Gordon Smith is a Republican from Oregon.

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