- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

LONDON Britain's politicians, doctors and media are engaged in a debate about how to deal with African immigrants who take up significant chunks of the free National Health Service treatment offered to HIV and AIDS sufferers.

Until recently the debate had been whispered because of the political sensitivity of the issue.

Recently, however, the Times newspaper in London reported that 80 percent of the 2,225 new cases of HIV in Britain last year were from Africa.

Equally surprising to the British public is that African immigrants or visitors account for nearly a quarter of all people known to be living with HIV in Britain.

The Times called the results of its investigation a "wake-up call."

The AIDS epidemic is rampant among heterosexuals in Africa, but fewer than 500 British-born heterosexuals are being treated for HIV infection or AIDS in Britain.

As in most of the Western world, AIDS here is spread mostly by homosexual men and drug users.

The Times investigations showed that many Africans presented themselves at British hospitals while saying they were on vacation. Others were asylum-seekers, and a significant number had been recruited by the British government to work as nurses and teachers.

Robert Kilroy-Silk, a former Labor Party member of Parliament, has been attacking the use of public resources to treat noncitizens.

In a column he writes for the national newspaper Sunday Express, Mr. Kilroy-Silk says the African patients are putting "enormous pressure" on British hospitals and cost the taxpayers more than British patients.

That, he writes, is because many do not speak English and therefore are provided with interpreters paid for by the Health Service. They also draw state benefits.

Callum O'Mahony, chairman of the Association of Genito-Urinary Medicine, which represents doctors who treat HIV, said: "Consultations take forever. Instead of taking 10 minutes, they're taking an hour and a half."

"A lot of my colleagues are saying the situation is just dreadful. These people have so many problems. Some of the cases are soul-destroying. It's very sad."

Mr. Kilroy-Silk, the British equivalent of Oprah Winfrey, hosts a daily talk show.

Both he and the Times of London complain that the National Health Service is declining, with longer waiting lists for routine operations, insufficient money for medical drugs and low pay for staff, causing shortages.

"It's no wonder we have a Third World health service," Mr. Kilroy-Silk wrote in a recent newspaper column. "It's because we've become the health service for the Third World."

The Times said medical practitioners worry that ignoring the HIV and AIDS demographics threatens to unleash a new epidemic among British heterosexuals.

The Times urged the government to outline new rules for who can or cannot receive free medical treatment in Britain.

Doctors say they simply treat patients who present themselves and do not believe they have a duty to check their legal status.

"It's very hard for doctors to be policemen as well," said Dr. Anton Pozniak, HIV consultant at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London.

By applying for political asylum, any visitor becomes entitled to free British medical care.

Jean-Emil Yebga, a spokesman for Blackliners, a support group for HIV-positive blacks, said it was far more common that Africans who needed treatment did not get it.

"One of the problems is that people come here and go underground because of immigration status and only go to hospital when they are really sick."

Distributed by World News and Features

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