Testing for AIDS is hurdle for travelers
Washington — On his fictional 19th-century trip Phileas Fogg, Jules Verne's celebrated character, zipped around the world in the then-breathtaking time of just 80 days. But that pace would be positively dilatory compared with the speed at which nation after nation today is deciding to test incoming travelers for AIDS. India tests African students for AIDS and deports those who test positive. China tests every traveler who applies to live there for longer than a year. Iraq is the only country to test all foreign nationals, and also all Iraqis returning from abroad. And the United States is about to test all immigrants.
``This area is moving very, very fast,'' a researcher with the World Health Organization says - to the point that it is difficult to keep up with the changes.
Targeted for testing around the world are people who intend to stay in a country for several months or more, such as guest workers or exchange students. Tourists are not yet affected. The tests aim to exclude people who are adjudged by physicians to have the AIDS virus, in an effort to halt the spread of the AIDS disease.
``It's too early to tell'' what the long-term effects of the rush to testing will be, says Martin Foreman, a researcher in the AIDS information unit of Panos, an information and policy-studies institute in London. ``Certainly in the short run it is going to lead to more irrational xenophobia.''
Already, he says, it ``has led to increased racism,'' in a kind of guilt by association. ``Africans studying abroad, particularly in India and China,'' he says, ``have felt particularly uncomfortable about being identified as probable AIDS cases - you are African, therefore you must have AIDS.''
After decades in which the world has been methodically dismantling cultural and travel barriers, ``there's a real potential'' that concern about AIDS will lead to putting them up again, says Jeff Harris, a coordinator on AIDS at the US Agency for International Development. ``It's not unprecedented. People have put up barriers'' on other diseases.
But often, as with cholera, he says, the disease is not the real reason that countries exclude travelers: Their real aim has been to keep out peoples they don't like, Dr. Harris says. ``And there's the same potential in the case of the AIDS epidemic. I wouldn't say it has happened yet, but there is the potential.''
One thing that has happened already is the growing testing of exchange students in many nations. Belgium, China, India, and East Germany all test them for the AIDS virus; those who test positive are sent home. International students ``clearly seem to be suffering the most'' from testing regulations, says a World Health Organization researcher who follows the issue.
A second group increasingly being tested is workers who go abroad for jobs: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Qatar now test them.
In addition, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines require foreigners seeking work permits ``to have certificates that they're free of the virus,'' Panos's Mr. Foreman says.
In Europe, Bavaria tests foreign would-be workers for the presence of the virus, as does the Austrian city of Klagenfurt. Bavaria, however, exempts workers from most Western Europe nations.
Some countries with a high reported incidence of the AIDS disease are concerned that their tourism industry will suffer, but it is ``too early to tell,'' Foreman says.
``There's been a lot of speculation,'' says Harris, ``about the possibility that [concern about AIDS] will hurt tourism, especially in places like Kenya.'' But with one exception, he adds, ``there has not been a falloff of tourism that I know, although it certainly is a concern.''
The exception is Haiti, where, as Harris says, ``it's axiomatic that it has killed tourism.''
Two nations that depend heavily on tourism, Keyna and Brazil, have handled the issue quite differently. Both reportedly have a substantial problem with the disease, although most reports generally paint a more gloomy picture for central and eastern Africa, where Kenya is.
Kenya, as Foreman notes, insists that AIDS is ``a minor problem,'' apparently so as ``not to discourage tourists.'' Thus far no effect is evident on Kenya's tourism, he says. The nation served as host to 451,000 visitors in 1985 and 650,000 last year. Its goal is a million tourists by the turn of the century.
On the other hand, Brazil publicly admits that AIDS is a serious problem there. At last February's pre-Lenten Carnival, a major tourist attraction, the government distributed leaflets in four languages explicitly warning visitors about AIDS.
Some nations with a thriving tourist trade and few cases of AIDS are reported to have considered testing tourists for the virus. But Ronald St. John says he does not know of ``any'' country that at present screens short-term tourists, or businessmen on brief visits. Mr. St. John is program coordinator for AIDS at the Pan American Health Organization, which is the regional office for the Americas of the World Health Organization.
Several experts say it is likely that AIDS will ultimately have a major dampening effect on a special kind of tourism: sexual tourism. These are trips taken to a few nations with the specific expectation of sexual activity. It is, in the words of one specialist, ``a tricky subject,'' which some will discuss only if their names are not used.
Foreman is not so reticent. Some tourists, he says, go to Thailand, Kenya, Brazil, and the Philippines in part because prostitutes cater to them. ``As far as I know,'' he says, ``in Thailand and Kenya [this kind of tourism] doesn't seem to have diminished'' because of any concerns of visitors that they might be exposed to AIDS in their contacts with prostitutes.