Here we go again: American Academics, HIV/AIDS, and Haiti

  • Posted on: 30 October 2007
  • By: Bryan Schaaf
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Once upon a time, Haiti was a tourist destination. This is not unusual as most Carribean countries do have tourism to some extent.  You can still see, throughout Haiti, facilities that used to be intended for tourist but are no more.


The estate of Katherine Dunham includes a forty-five acre botanical park and hotel (private villas with private pools), that have long been overtaken by squatters.  The Club Med on the west coast has been/is being converted to private apartments.  Gingebread houses which used to be beds/breakfasts are now school buildings. 


The US embargo on Haiti killed industry.  Deforestation is killing agriculture.  But what brought tourism to its knees in Haiti?  Thank the American academic community for that.  Shoddy research, scholarly sensationalism, blamed Haiti for bringing HIV to the United States.  Some authors blamed Vodoun.  The end result is Haiti lost an important source of revenue.


True enough, Haiti was also an active sex tourism destination for men and for women as the film Ver La Sud reminds us.  But Haiti was not alone in being the only Carribean sex tourist destination in Haiti. 


More rigorous research suggests that it was sex tourists from the United States who brought the disease to Haiti.  For this reason, I was suprised to read the article which suggests that a Central African migrant brought it to Haiti.  Even during its economically strongest years, I doubt Haiti was much of a draw for central Africa or vice versa. Tourists could have visited several countries in one trip.  One of the researchers remembers treating Haitians with a mystery disease in the seventies - is this to say they were the only Carribean population affected?  One hopes not. 


This is not to say HIV/AIDS does not continue to be a problem in Haiti.  Though there is some debate on the prevalence rate, national seroprevalance surveys (with pregnant women as a proxy for the whole population) suggest that it has dropped from a high of approxmately 6 percent iin 1993 to around 2.2 percent in 2006.  While a decline of four percentage posts is extremely significant, there is no room for complacency.  HIV remains very high in certain sub groups such as commercial sex workers.


There is much more to be done, but progress is being made.  After all the damage down by researchers in Haiti seeking the quick fix to understanding HIV, I just hate to see the issue dredged up again with work that is tinged with racism.  I encourage the Haitian Diaspora and Friends of Haiti to speak out against this piece of research, which is at best, unhelpful.


We intend to do out part as well. Below is the article, welcome your thoughts.




AIDS virus invaded U.S. from Haiti: study

By Will Dunham Mon Oct 29, 5:43 PM ET


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The AIDS virus invaded the United States in about 1969 from Haiti, carried most likely by a single infected immigrant who set the stage for it to sweep the world in a tragic epidemic, scientists said on Monday.


Michael Worobey, a University of Arizona evolutionary biologist, said the 1969 U.S. entry date is earlier than some experts had believed.


The timeline laid out in the study led by Worobey indicates that HIV infections were occurring in the United States for roughly 12 years before AIDS was first recognized by scientists as a disease in 1981. Many people had died by that point. "It is somehow chilling to know it was probably circulating for so long under our noses," Worobey said in a telephone interview.


The researchers conducted a genetic analysis of stored blood samples from early  AIDS patients to determine when the human immunodeficiency virus first entered the United States.


They found that HIV was brought to Haiti by an infected person from central Africa in about 1966, which matches earlier estimates, and then came to the United States in about 1969.


The researchers think an unknown single infected Haitian immigrant arrived in a  large city like Miami or New York, and the virus circulated for years -- first in the U.S. population and then to other nations. It can take several years after infection for a person to develop AIDS, a disease that ravages the immune system.




"That one infection would have become two, and then it doubles again and the  two becomes four," Worobey said. "So you have a period -- probably a fair number of years -- where you're dealing with probably fewer than a hundred people who are infected.


"And then, as with epidemic expansion, at some point the hundred becomes 200, you start getting into thousands, tens of thousands. And then quite rapidly you can be up into the hundreds of thousands of infections that were probably already there before AIDS was recognized in the early 1980s."


The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The path the virus traveled as it jumped from nation to nation has long been debated by scientists.


The University of Miami's Dr. Arthur Pitchenik, a co-author of the study, had  seen Haitian immigrants in Miami as early as 1979 with a mystery illness that turned out to be AIDS. He knew the government long had stored some of their blood samples.


The researchers analyzed samples from five of these Haitian immigrants dating from 1982 and 1983. They also looked at genetic data from 117 more early AIDS patients from around the world.


This genetic analysis allowed the scientists to calibrate the molecular clock of the strain of HIV that has spread most widely, and calculated when it arrived first in Haiti from Africa and then in the United States.


The researchers virtually ruled out the possibility that HIV had come directly to the United States from Africa, setting a 99.8 percent probability that Haiti was the steppingstone.


"I think that it gives us more clear insight into the history of it (the AIDS epidemic) and what path the virus took -- and hard objective evidence, not justarmchair thinking," Pitchenik said in a telephone interview.


Studies suggest the virus first entered the human population in about 1930 in central Africa, probably when people slaughtered infected chimpanzees for meat. AIDS has killed more than 25 million people and about 40 million others are infected with HIV.

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