Top CEOs: End HIV Travel Restrictions Worldwide

More than 40 CEOs have signed the initiative, urging repeal of laws in 45 countries that restrict travel for those living with HIV

Marco was headed to Bangladesh for a business meeting, but was detained by Customs officials while on a layover in Qatar.

The officials searched his luggage and quickly found his HIV medications. He was locked in a room for three hours, then deported.

As a result, he missed the first day of the meeting. To explain, he ended up disclosing his  HIV status to co-workers.

Marco is the star of a video posted by GBC Health, a coalition of companies that addresses global health challenges, including HIV.

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He had the misfortune to be visiting one of the 45 countries that still restricts travelers living with HIV.

Now, a joint initiative spearheaded by GBC Health, Levis Strauss & Co. and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS hopes to end those restrictions globally, calling it blatant discrimination.

More than 40 CEOs have signed the initiative's pledge, urging the 45 countries who still have these restrictions to end them. (Among them, CEOs from Levi Strauss, BET Networks, Coca-Cola Company, Edelman, Kenneth Cole Productions, Johnson & Johnson and Nordstrom.)

"Global business leaders are coming together to make sure we end these unreasonable restrictions," says Chip Bergh, president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., in a statement.

The restrictions, besides being discriminatory, are bad for business, he and other leaders say.

The restrictions were often put into place in the 1980s, before experts knew much about transmission and before treatments evolved.

The restrictions vary by country, but include denying HIV-positive travelers entry, stay, residence or work visas, according to GBC Health.

Experts know now that HIV cannot be spread by casual contact. A greater public health concern, say those involved in the initiative, can result when business travelers leave their anti-viral medications at home so they won't be discovered, possibly jeopardizing their health.

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The U.S. repealed its ban on HIV travel, in effect for 22 years, in 2010.

Among the 45 countries that still restrict are Australia, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

For a complete list of countries and other information on the initiative, see GBC Health.

The concern about travelers bringing HIV into a country is generally unfounded, Brian Terry, MD, medical director of the Healthy Traveler Clinic in Pasadena, Calif., tells Take Part.

"I don't think there are any issues there," he says. "Because of the way HIV is spread, someone is not going to cough on a person and give it to them."

Long-distance travelers, he often finds, are better educated and tend to take good care of their health, including taking their medications as prescribed.

"People who travel are typically better medicated, so their viral loads are lower," he says.

The restrictions overlook the obvious, he says: HIV is already present in the countries. "Travelers are the least of their worries."

Removing the ban worldwide won't adversely affect global health, experts say, and will be good for business. Currently, the restrictions prohibit some living with HIV from attending work meetings or accepting promotions that require relocation.

Michael Schreiber, managing director and co-president of GBC Health, is optimistic that the situation will change. "The United States lifted its HIV travel ban in 2010 and a half dozen countries, including China, recently removed their HIV travel restrictions," he tells Take Part.

"There is great momentum now, and we are optimistic that the remaining 45 countries will follow suit. We believe that the voices of multinational CEOs can help influence them to do the right thing."

Besides being good for business, removing the restrictions will spare people like Marco the need to disclose their health status when they don't want to, and possibly save them humiliation.

In the video, Marco describes how the Customs officer approached him: with gloves, up to his elbows. He kept pulling them up, Marco remembers, obviously fearful he was going to catch HIV.

His face still registers pain as he recounts the story.

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