Medical Conference Leaders Address Travel Ban Consequences

Marcia Frellick

February 09, 2017

UPDATE: Early Thursday evening, February 9, a federal appeals court maintained the stay on President Trump's executive order temporarily barring refugees and citizens from seven Muslim-majority Middle Eastern countries from entering the United States. The Trump administration will likely appeal the decision to the US Supreme Court. Until the Supreme Court makes its final decision, many of the concerns cited in this article are likely to remain.

President Trump's immigration ban has led leaders of some major medical conferences to issue strong opposition statements and some physicians and scientists to cancel plans to present their work.

The order, issued on January 27, aims to prevent citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen — from entering the United States for 90 days. It suspended entry of all refugees for 120 days and barred refugees from Syria indefinitely. A federal judge has since imposed an emergency stay, halting the key parts of the executive order.

Federal judges in the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from lawyers on both sides Tuesday night, but by midday Thursday no ruling had been made on whether to lift the injunction.

Medical Conference Leaders Speak Out

The annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI), the premier HIV conference in the United States, begins February 13 in Seattle, Washington, and leaders denounced the ban in a statement.

Susan Buchbinder, MD, director of the Bridge program at the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Chair of the 2017 CROI, said, "These restrictions threaten to interrupt the exchange of scientific research information that is vital to the global response to health threats such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, Zika, and many other infectious diseases. As a consequence, the restrictions endanger rather than protect the health and wellbeing of Americans and people all over the world."

Constance A. Benson, MD, professor of medicine and president of the CROI Foundation, said in the statement that she understood there was talk in the scientific community of boycotting scientific meetings in the United States but knew of none specifically relating to CROI.

"We understand the desire to boycott but believe that the best form of resistance to this ban is not to abstain from scientific exchange, but to continue to participate.  We urge the international scientific, public health, and advocacy delegates to come to Seattle and stand with us against discrimination by continuing to collaborate with and care for all people, regardless of religious beliefs, national origin, or any other personal characteristic including HIV status, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender identity."

The Endocrine Society is reporting cancellations for its annual meeting — ENDO 2017 — in Orlando, Florida, in early April, Gary Hammer, MD, PhD, the society's meeting chair, told Medscape Medical News, noting nearly 40% of its members live outside the United States.

Catherine M. Rydell, CAE, executive director and CEO of the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), said she has gotten several cancellations and multiple inquiries from attendees and presenters in advance of their April 22–28 annual meeting about what the ban means.

Typically, 13,000 attend the AAN annual meeting, and up to 30% to 40% come from outside the United States, with up to 200 from the seven targeted countries, she told Medscape Medical News.

Of the 200, "a handful" are scheduled to present, and the ban has AAN scrambling to find ways for the science to be presented (via Skype or other means) if the scientists can't come.

They have joined with other medical organizations voicing concerns about the ban.

"Science doesn't have borders," she said. "When 1 in 6 people are affected by neurological disease worldwide, it's a worldwide issue. Our goal is to bring the best and the brightest to the table."

Richard A. Chazal, MD, president of the American College of Cardiology, whose annual meeting begins March 17, also issued a statement in response to the executive order, saying the ban inhibits the free exchange of ideas.

"If we are to realize a future where cardiovascular disease is no longer the #1 killer of men and women worldwide we must ensure that our system of scientific exchange allows for health care professionals to learn from each other regardless of their nationality," he said.

Scientists Promote Boycott

The ban is being felt by all in the scientific community, not just in health care. ScienceInsider reports that the Commission G2 Massive Stars organizing committee, part of the International Astronomical Union, has said it will not hold any meetings in the United States as long as a ban is in effect. More than 6200 people by February 7 had signed a petition calling for a boycott of US meetings as long as a ban is in place. 

The language in the petition states about US conferences, "We question the intellectual integrity of these spaces and the dialogues they are designed to encourage while Muslim colleagues are explicitly excluded from them."

In addition, more than 42,000 scientists and academics have also signed a letter denouncing the ban.

Speakers Change Plans

Kaveh Daneshvar, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, was asked to speak at a Keystone symposium molecular biology meeting this week in Banff, Canada.

Dr Daneshvar, an Iranian citizen with a green card, told Medscape Medical News he had cancelled the trip last week because of the uncertainty as to the scope of the ban, but when the details surrounding green card holders became clearer he resumed plans to go.

He said he is frustrated that he has to consider political issues in making decisions about his work.

"The ability to travel and attend international meetings is an essential part of any scientist's professional life," he said. "These meetings are where we present the results of our work, we learn about the latest developments in our fields, and we interact and collaborate with other scientists to advance our science." 

Just days after the executive order was announced, a British cardiologist told a TV station about being kept from traveling to present a paper at a US conference.

In an interview with Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, Abtehale Al-Hussaini, a British physician who works as a consultant cardiologist in the National Health Service, told of being stopped by airline and immigration officials at Heathrow Airport on February 1 before she could board a flight to a medical conference in Washington, DC. She indicated she felt she was singled out because of her name and because she had an Iraqi visa in her passport. She was prevented from going to the conference and was not able to get a clear explanation of why, but was told only "things have changed."

As a British citizen, with no other nationality, she did not expect to be caught up in President Trump's order.

"I certainly felt discriminated from the first minute I arrived at the airport," she said. Her passport was taken and she was interviewed by an immigration officer.

"I'm absolutely disappointed, very much disgusted…. This is not the way forward," she said.

For more news, join us on Facebook and Twitter


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.