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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Thu Oct 26 13:55:50 2000
Date: Wed, 25 Oct 2000 21:36:25 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: HEALTH-HAITI: Country Continues to Struggle with AIDS Epidemic
Article: 107699
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Country Continues to Struggle with AIDS Epidemic

By Ives Marie Chanel, IPS, 21 October 2000

Port-au-Prince, Oct 20 (IPS) - Though precise statistics do not yet exist on how the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) has ravaged Haiti, public education campaigns are believed to be making a positive effect on people's behaviour.

Many who consider themselves healthy are no longer wary of casual contact with people with AIDS. And ever since a support group for people with AIDS was established two years ago, sufferers themselves are less likely to view their disease as a shameful secret.

During this period as well, the authorities and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have launched public education campaigns to improve the public's understanding of the disease.

Haiti has one of the highest rates of infection in the western hemisphere. More than 73 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and estimates are that more than 300,000 people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Even though public education campaigns on the subject have become more intensive, the infection rate has not been staunched. In a country of 8.2 million where almost 70 percent of the population is illiterate, a fully informed public is not an easy goal.

New measures are frequently announced by health officials. Some are still in the planning stages, while others are recognised to be little more than politicking.

Some of those ill with AIDS are still waiting for promised government subsidies or for the authorities to provide them with the medicines which will stem the progression of the disease.

Their frequent criticism of the lack of an official AIDS policy or any assistance for AIDS-sufferers represents a thorn in the government's side.

At the beginning of August, Michaelle Amedee Gedeon, the Haitian Minister of Health, announced that the government was trying to eliminate taxes on medications for people with AIDS.

A Haitian with AIDS needs between 12,000 and 13,000 dollars a year to buy medicine. This is more than 16 times the per capita income of the average citizen, and two-thirds that of a member of parliament.

Given that the government lacks the financial wherewithal to provide the help to people with AIDS offered in more economically-developed countries, the minister is emphasising prevention in her remarks to the public, especially the youth. The best-case scenario would be to simply stop the spread of the virus, she said.

The Minister of Health is also working on an anti-retroviral therapy for pregnant women which will lessen the chances of transmitting the disease to new-borns.

Monday, the Haitian health minister announced that there would very soon be clinical trials for a vaccine against the strain of AIDS found in Haiti. The first batch of vaccine will be available this week and administered to healthy individuals who have volunteered for the study.

The trial will last for some 24 months and is being run in conjunction with the Vanderbilt AIDS Vaccine Evaluation Unit of the Vanderbilt University in the United States.

Since the Vanderbilt AIDS vaccine programme was established in 1987, nearly 500 people have participated in tests that it has conducted. It is one of 10 university-based AIDS vaccine programmes in the United States.

The vaccine uses the canary pox virus, which cannot reproduce in mammals, to carry inactive HIV genes in an effort to help the body develop defences against HIV infection. Side effects in previous studies have been limited to mild fever and muscle soreness where the vaccine was injected.

Haiti's participation with other countries in the region, such as Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil, in these clinical trials is a demonstration of our solidarity in stopping the epidemic, which more and more affects the poorest of the poor, the minister said.

Minister Gedeon also noted that positive results could lead to an extension of the trials.

The health minister also called on the developed world to demonstrate its solidarity in the struggle against AIDS by freeing poor countries from the crushing burden of their foreign debt. Such a gesture, she noted, would mean that the governments of such countries would have a little more to spend on the AIDS pandemic.

There were other joint anti-AIDS actions launched in August by Haitian groups in conjunction with counterparts in neighbouring Dominican Republic.

The leaders of the two major anti-AIDS organisations in each country, the Association of National Solidarity (ASON) and the Network of HIV- positive Dominicans (REDOVIH+) met at the end of August to work together on island-wide projects. The two countries share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.

The meeting came in the aftermath of an international conference on women and HIV/AIDS in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, organised by the Women's Health Collective (CMS).

During the Aug. 9 conference, whose theme was 'Women and HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean', Haitians and Dominicans acknowledged the need to work together to reduce the rate of infection in the two countries, according to Marionne Benoit, the programme co-ordinator for the Dominican and Haitian networks.

Public education and prevention campaigns will be launched in the island's most affected regions with the support of other trans-border institutions. A network will also be established among the two associations' members to encourage more communication among HIV-positive people in the two countries.

The leaders of the Dominican group acknowledged that they had much to learn from the experiences of Haitians. The Dominican government has not yet developed any national AIDS policy, said the secretary general of ASON, who was invited to talk about his experiences fighting AIDS in Haiti.

Comparative data on the progression of the epidemic around the world was published at the end of 1999 by the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDs (UNAIDS). The estimated rate of infection among adults in the Dominican Republic is about three percent. Figures in the same report estimate infection on the Haitian side of the border to be about twice as high, or six percent.