Haiti: The AIDS Stigma

September 25, 2007

AIDS. Everybody has heard of
it, everybody is scared of it, and no-
body knows just what it is. Dubbed
"Acquired Immune Deficiency Syn-
drome," AIDS has already claimed
hundreds of lives, with its inci-
dence reportedly accelerating at
an alarming rate. Most AIDS vic-
tims fall into one of the syndrome's
alleged "high-risk groups": homo-
sexuals, intravenous drug (e.g.
heroin) users, hemophiliacs and-
last but not least in notoriety--
Haitians. AIDS' popular nickname,
"the 4-H disease," derives from
these four groups.
The very use of such a sobri-
quet is an eloquent sign of the
American public's need to ostra-
cize victims of this frightening ill-
ness. For Haitians, both in the
United States and at home, the
implications of being pigeonholed
in this way have been particularly
devastating. Already in the politi-
cal limelight because of the huge
influx of "boat people" in recent
years and the subsequent contro-
versy over their legal status in the
United States, Haitians now find
themselves the object of further
unwanted attention as possible
purveyors of a deadly new plague.
In much of the American press,
bizarre speculation about the "Hai-
tian AIDS connection" has fostered
a climate of suspicion which Hai-
tians have had trouble dispelling.
Initially, even voodoo-the tradi-
tional Haitian religion involving
Martha Cooley is a free-lance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
She has recently returned from a visit
to Haiti.
dance, music and occasional ani-
mal sacrifice-was invoked by
the media as an explanation for
AIDS' appearance in the Haitian
community. Distortion of physi-
cians' statements stoked the fires:
The New York Daily News cited
one American researcher, Dr.
Jeffrey Viera of Downstate Medi-
cal Center in Brooklyn, as draw-
ing a potential voodoo-AIDS link.
Dr. Viera sent a letter to the Daily
News denying he had ever made
such a suggestion; only one month
later did the Daily News see fit to
print his refutation.
In another glaring piece of sen-
sationalism, the Boston Globe
(April 29, 1983) ran the headline
"Researcher Links AIDS, Swine
Fever," citing a Harvard School of
Public Health researcher who con-
jectured that AIDS "may have origi-
nated with one Haitian homosexual
who ate infected pork" and then
spread the disease to vacationing
American homosexuals in Haiti.
(No scientific corroboration was
offered by the Globe; indeed, two
U.S. scientific groups have since
stated that no data exists to sup-
port the notion.)
Haitian doctors are angry at
such cavalier handling of the topic,
A worker erects a new barricade at Miami's Krome Avenue Detention Center in 1981.
Sept/Oct 1983 47update * update update * update
and have largely opted to respond
with silence or extreme reticence
out of fear of being misquoted.
One American doctor studying
AIDS at Atlanta's Center for Dis-
ease Control (CDC) feels that the
annoyance of his Haitian counter-
parts is understandable: "They're
struggling just like we are. And
their secrecy isn't unique to Haiti-
it's the way scientists work." He
claims that CDC is encouraging
collaboration with Haiti and that
there is mutual respect between
medical researchers in both coun-
tries. "Pointing fingers doesn't
strengthen anybody's position."
Dr. Warren Johnson of Cornell's
College of Medicine, who attended
a symposium on AIDS in Haiti
sponsored by the Haitian Medical
Association, feels similarly about
the issue of caution. "The Haitians
are doing an excellent job," he
confirms, "and they want to de-
vote their time to working, not talk-
ing. The press hasn't dealt fairly
with Haiti. They have a reason to
be silent."
Racist Overtones
Few Haitian researchers have
been willing to break this silence.
As a consequence, U.S. doctors
have often ended up as spokes-
persons for the Haitians, a situa-
tion that disturbs Dr. Jean-Claude
Desgranges, a Haitian physician
affiliated with Downstate. Articu-
late and angry, Dr. Desgranges
claims that sensationalism and
racism have severely impacted
Haitians in the United States.
"Haitians were prematurely des-
ignated a 'high-risk factor'," says
Desgranges. "There have been
no serious epidemiological studies
in any of the Haitian communities
of the diaspora. Haitians with AIDS
represent only about 2.5% of the
entire victim population in this
country. People have jumped to
conclusions about the Haitians."
Dr. Desgranges is presently in-
volved in an epidemiological/im-
munological case control study in
New York's Haitian community.
The study uses two groups--a
random sample of about 150 Hai-
tians and a control group of Haitian
AIDS victims and their families--
living under similar socioeconomic
conditions. Dr. Desgranges insists.
that no study can be successfully
undertaken without the participa-
tion of Haitian doctors. "In Miami
they're trying to do one without us.
The language barrier makes it im-
possible. They try to speak French
to Haitians, but most of us under-
stand only Creole. It won't work."
Dr. Desg ranges has harsh words
for U.S. press coverage of the
Haitian connection. "The New York
Times has never sought out Hai-
tians for their point of view. They
only want to talk to American doc-
tors, it seems. And two weeks
ago, I gave an interview to the
Daily News, telling them about
what we're doing here and in Haiti.
What did they report? That I was
asking for help! That wasn't at all
what I said. It makes us look
A Small, Black Scapegoat
Like most experts inside Haiti,
the AIDS Research Group in Port-
au-Prince is far more reticent than
Dr. Desgranges. The group's mem-
bers, who are among Haiti's most
prestigious physicians, insisted
on written questions before they
would grant a brief interview re-
cently. One inveighed strongly
against the American press: "They
come in here with big cameras
and already I'm repulsed. We've
refused to give out any informa-
tion thus far. We assume that any-
thing we say will be misquoted
or misinterpreted by the press."
Slapping his palms with his fingers
in a characteristic Haitian gesture
of vexation and resignation, he
added, "Because the United States
is rich, white and big, it thinks it
can make a bouc emissaire-a
scapegoat--of us. Haiti is poor
and black and small. If our reputa-
tion is maligned, what can we do?
Sue the United States!?"
According to Dr. Desgranges,
Haitians in the United States are
already suffering the ill effects of
being maligned. "People are los-
ing their jobs. A Haitian girl I know
of was recently fired from her job
as a maid because her employer
thought she might have AIDS--and
she was working for an American
doctor!" Dr. Desgranges also wor-
ries about discrimination against
Haitians seeking work, as well as
prejudice against Haitian school
children. "Kids are refusing to sit
next to Haitian students, even in
kindergarten. It's a real problem."
In the busy streets of Port-au-
Prince, few foreigners are in evi-
dence. When asked why tourism
has declined, Haitians cluck their
tongues and murmur "Quatre-H"
in ironic tones. They are upset not
only by the loss of desperately
needed income, but by the politi-
cal ramifications of AIDS' presence
among Haitians at home and
abroad. During the past two years,
both the Haitian and U.S. authori-
ties have made strenuous efforts
to curtail the flow of Haitian refu-
gees to the north; the AIDS scare
will put an extra damper on the
hopes of emigres. A young man in
the Champs-de-Mars, the capital's
central park, put it succinctly: "You
Americans think we're stupid, don't
you? We know you don't want us
coming to your country any more.
This 4-H thing is just one more
way to keep us out."

Tags: Haiti, AIDS, racism

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.