Living with HIV shouldn’t stop you from living the life you want, and that includes travelling almost anywhere you’d want to go. But there are a few things to think about before you pack your bags.
Today, most people living with HIV in Ireland are taking just one or two tablets a day for treatment. 20 years ago, HIV treatment often involved five or ten pills that had to be taken at specific times, some with food, or on an empty stomach, and some which had to be refrigerated.
These days, the main concern for people with HIV who are travelling is making sure that you bring enough medication with you to last your whole trip - along with a bit extra in case you are delayed on your return.
Some countries still have restrictions on travel for people with HIV, but they are a lot less common now than they once were. In the 1980’s and ‘90s, many countries imposed travel or residency restrictions on the basis of HIV status. In some cases these applied to longer stays or residency, but often they were blanket bans which prohibited people from entering the country entirely.
Thankfully most countries have removed or significantly reduced such restrictions on travel and residence. UNAIDS reports that currently over 200 countries have no HIV-related restrictions. However about 48 countries still have HIV-related travel or residence restrictions, with 19 still threatening to actively deport non-citizens living with HIV. Restrictions on travel or residence based on HIV status have come under increasingly strong criticism for being ineffective and discriminatory.
Earlier this year, UNAIDS and the United Nations Development Programme called on all countries to remove all forms of HIV-related travel restrictions. Rico Gustav, Executive Director of the Global Network of People Living with HIV, said, “HIV-related travel restrictions violate human rights and stimulate stigma and discrimination. They do not decrease the transmission of HIV… It is truly incomprehensible that HIV-related entry and residency restrictions still exist.”
In practical terms, travel bans are not always consistently enforced and it is possible for people living with HIV to visit countries that hold them. However doing so is not without potentially serious risk so it’s important to be aware of the legal situation before you go.
You can find up-to-date information about any restrictions in a country you’re thinking of visiting at hivtravel.org. You can also contact a country’s embassy or consulate, but it’s best to do so without sharing any identifying information about any individual’s HIV status.
Many of the countries with the harshest restrictions are not particularly popular tourist destinations (Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia, for example), but one country in particular is a cause of concern for many travellers: the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Etihad and Emirates airlines are both based in the UAE and passengers typically transit through there on travel connections.
Fortunately for travellers living with HIV — as well as travellers using PrEP or PEP — when transiting through Abu Dhabi or Dubai, as long as you stay inside the airport you’re not officially entering the UAE. That means you won’t go through immigration or customs and are not subject to the entry ban.
• Bring enough medication to last through your trip, with some extra in case. Plan ahead: if your regular HIV appointment is during or shortly after your trip, reschedule earlier so you won’t be short on meds.
• Keep your HIV medications in your carry-on luggage in case anything should happen to your checked bags. Carry a copy of your prescription explaining your medications are for a chronic medical condition.
• It’s fine to carry a week’s worth in a pill box, but keep anything beyond that in the original packaging. That will make it clear that they’re prescribed medications, and will also help preserve the medication.
• Get vaccinated. If you’re traveling somewhere where specific vaccinations or prophylaxis are recommended, check with your HIV specialist about any possible interactions.
• Get a European Health Insurance Card from the HSE. This will allow you to access public health services in other EU countries for free or at a reduced cost.
• Consider travel insurance. Emergency medical care can be astonishingly expensive in some countries. Many policies exclude pre-existing conditions (like HIV), but would still cover you if you fall ill abroad.