After decades of progress in staving off the tide of HIV/AIDS in Haiti, health advocates are concerned about regression—in the wake of the powerful Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, the infrastructure used to combat the disease no longer exists.
Charles King, CEO of Housing Works, a New York-based organization that combats AIDS and homelessness, traveled to Haiti after the earthquake and was left despondent over what he witnessed. The devastation to the country is so great, he fears HIV/AIDS patients will quickly perish.
“I was taken to one of the larger AIDS clinics in Port-Au-Prince which had been pancaked,” said King. “At that clinic, every single staff person and every single patient who was in the building was killed.”
Treating victims of the earthquake is now the No. 1 priority, which leaves patients with other needs in the cold, a fact King found out first hand, much to his dismay.
“In Saint-Marc, which is about a 90-minute drive north of , we actually met with the head of the local hospital and he had plenty of ARVs,” he said. “The hospital was so flooded with trauma patients that they couldn’t enroll any new patients, including people who were fleeing .”
The United Nations estimates that there were about 120,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, with the bulk of the infections among the 15-to-49-year-old population, which had an infection orate of 2.2 percent. That rate is down drastically from 5.5 percent within the same age group in 1996.
King said the decline was not fueled by outside forces, but by the Haitian people themselves.
“There has been a growing society movement within Haiti itself to combat the epidemic,” said King. “I attended a conference in Jacmel, by the national association of people living with AIDS and HIV in Haiti, that issued a powerful declaration that the country and global forces address the epidemic. That was actually followed the day after the conference with thousands of people marching through the streets asking for human rights for all people living with HIV and AIDS.”
Any progress that has been made in HIV/AIDS treatment efforts, however, really hasn’t come as a result of the Haitian government, King added.
“At least a third of people who need antiretroviral (ARV) drugs by Haiti’s standards have never had access to ARVs,” he said. “Haiti has only had first-line drugs so people who’ve developed resistance have had no real access and hasn’t had basic testing equipment to test for resistance.”
And with the little infrastructure it had now gone, the Haitian government will be less able to treat HIV/AIDS patients. While the current outlook isn’t a pretty picture, King said he is hopeful that a new approach could produce a new methodology in the way HIV/AIDS is treated in the country.
“There’s a really growing and wonderful group of indigenous AIDS services that don’t have the same kind of access to resources and funds to take care of their own community,” he said.
“I would hope that this provides us an opportunity to rethink how we do HIV/AIDS care,” he added. “Not just have a new influx of more international involvement taking over, but providing resources and technical assistance to local organizations and helping them build the capacity to address the epidemic themselves.”
For more information on Housing Works, please visit www.housingworks.org.