SYDNEY, Australia – Australia's leader said Friday he opposed HIV-positive people being allowed to migrate to his country, triggering anger among health care workers who said he was demonizing foreigners and blaming patients for getting sick.
Other specialists puzzled why Prime Minister John Howard said he would consider tightening laws -- already stricter than those in many countries -- that already rejected the vast majority of prospective migrants and refugees who have AIDS.
The spat erupted when Howard commented on local figures in one Australian state, Victoria, indicating a rise in the number of foreigners living there who had the virus.
Howard was asked in a radio interview in Melbourne if he thought people with HIV should be allowed into Australia as migrants or refugees.
Howard replied that he wanted more advice on the issue, but that "my initial reaction is, no."
"There may be some humanitarian considerations that could temper that in certain cases, but prima facie -- no," he told Southern Cross Broadcasting. "I think we should have the most stringent possible conditions in relation to that."
He said Health Minister Tony Abbott was concerned about the issue "and is examining ways of tightening things up."
AIDS has been in Australia since it started to become a mainstream global health issue in the early 1980s. It has been largely been confined to homosexual men who have sex without condoms and needle-sharing drug users.
The National Center for HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research said in an October 2006 update that since it was first detected in Australia in 1982, 25,703 infections had been reported, of which 9,827 people developed full-blown AIDS and 6,621 had died.
Australia has long had rules that can be used to block people with communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and other health problems from entering the country.
Prospective immigrants are routinely given an AIDS test, and the rules have been used for years to block HIV-positive people, said Don Baxter of the nongovernment group the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations.
"It's very tight already," Baxter told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
Exceptions can be made in circumstances such as when an HIV-positive prospective migrant is related to someone who is already an Australian citizen.
AIDS activists say there are few countries that still impose outright, specific bans on immigration by HIV-positive people -- such as Qatar, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
But health regulations such as those in Australia and the United States go against the advice of health officials who say bans are unnecessary and discriminatory.
Dr. Chris Lemoh, an infectious disease specialist whose is working on a doctorate on the spread of AIDS among African immigrants in Victoria, rejected Howard's comments, saying excluding people with HIV could not be justified.
"It's a hysterical overreaction, it mixes racism with a phobia about infectious disease," he said. "To not allow people to come on the basis of any health condition is immoral, it's unethical and it's impractical to enforce."
Refugee advocate Pamela Curr said Howard's comments promoted an "untruth" that foreigners -- especially Africans -- were to blame for the HIV problem in Australia.
"The mud is thrown, so everyone thinks, 'those filthy refugees,' particularly 'those black refugees,"' said Curr, of the Asylum Seeker Resource Center.