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Haiti fights poverty in war against AIDS

In a nation where Voodoo, superstition, poverty and a lack of education are prevalent, getting people to take the medicine and practice safe sex is just as important.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2005 13:05 IST

In the war against AIDS, doctors in Haiti are battling on two fronts.

Obtaining and providing the drugs is vital. But in a nation where Voodoo, superstition, poverty and a lack of education are prevalent, getting people to take the medicine and practice safe sex is just as important.

"The challenge isn't to just give people the drugs. It's to make sure they take them," said Dr. Rose Irene Verdier of GHESKIO, a clinic in a rundown seaside neighbourhood that is Haiti's largest treatment centre for sexually transmitted diseases. About 350,000 Haitians have the virus that causes AIDS.

Elisabeth Dumay, a social worker at the centre, knows all too well that ignorance can increase the risk of AIDS. Dumay said she realised in the 1990s that her husband was HIV-positive but continued having unprotected sex with him. He died in 1997 and she tested positive the following year.

"I thought God would protect me, but he didn't," Dumay said.
During her treatment, Dumay was hired as a social worker by GHESKIO, the French acronym for the Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi's Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections. Kaposi's sarcoma is a cancer associated with AIDS.

Dumay now helps patients cope with the shock of learning they are HIV-positive, calling them regularly to make sure they take their drugs.

In a country with 80 per cent unemployment and where only 20 per cent of the population can read and write, educating people about the virus is crucial, she said.

Dumay said many patients initially are dubious about antiretroviral drugs, or horrified by their side effects, which can include nausea, hallucinations and sleeplessness.

"It's true it can be very unpleasant at first," Dumay said.

She said her patients see her as a role model for people with HIV, showing it is possible to succeed in life with the virus.

"I tell them I have a 10-year-old daughter who's HIV-negative, and even a new boyfriend who's negative also," the 42-year-old woman said.

The clinic has an elaborate support system, offering food, phone cards and even taxi rides to patients with advanced AIDS who are taking the antiretroviral drugs.

"It's a chain, teamwork," Verdier said. "We've adapted medical methods to succeed in the critical conditions of Haiti."

Dr. Jean William Pape, who founded GHESKIO in 1982, said 2,600 patients have received antiretroviral drugs this year. He hopes to treat up to 8,000 people next year. The clinic has treated more than 1 million people since it opened.

The centre's $2.6 million yearly budget comes from donations from international aid programmes and foundations, Pape said. All medications are free to the patients, although the drugs cost $1,600 per patient each year.

First Published: Dec 02, 2005 13:05 IST