“Haitian history is a chronicle of suffering so Job-like that it inevitably inspires arguments with God, and about God,” wrote George Packer in the January 25th issue of The New Yorker.
Packer then offered a litany of events and circumstances – from slavery, revolt and oppression, to American occupation and neglect, to extreme poverty, political violence, coups, gangs, and hurricanes, “and now an earthquake that exploits all the weaknesses created by this legacy to kill tens of thousands of people.”
Packer could have added that the small island nation had been plagued by endemic diseases including malaria, tuberculosis and, beginning around 1979, HIV/AIDS. Indeed, given a nearly nonexistent healthcare system at the time, Haiti had minimal defenses against the onset of that epidemic.
In 1983, while working for a medical television network aimed at physicians, I learned that the CDC had named Haitians along with three other groups – homosexuals, heroin addicts and hemophiliacs – as high risk factors for what was then called HTLV infection – the “4H Club,” as some in the mainstream news media benightedly put it. Ashamed to say that we who should have known better chuckled at this flippancy.
And so, during the period that the disease became increasingly identified with Haitian immigrants tothe U.S., this stigma borne of fear, confusion and racism singled out Haiti as the only country to suffer the consequences – this for a nation in which tourism was the economic backbone.
“It killed tourism in Haiti,” said Dr. Jean W. Pape in a 2006 interview. “Within a year the tourism industry decreased by 80 percent… Goods manufactured in Haiti could not be sold in the U.S.”
And Haitians in the U.S. found it tougher finding work or selling their homes.
Who is Jean Pape? He is a physician and scientist , and a bona fide hero. Honoring “heroes whose actions and courage make the world a better place,” the U.N. has praised Pape’s “achievements, courage and inspiration in contributing to breaking the silence on HIV/AIDS.”
Understanding that a solid research base was needed in Haiti in order to develop the most effective anti-AIDS strategies, Pape established the Groupe Haitien d’Etudes du Sarcome de Kaposi et des Infections Opportunistes (GHESKIO), in 1982. The group integrates patient services, health research, and training in HIV/AIDS and inter-related diseases.
A professor of medicine at Cornell and a professor at the State University of Haiti, Pape also established Cornell’s Tropical Medicine and Infectious Disease Research Unit in Port-au-Prince.
After completing his medical training at Cornell in 1975, he returned to his native Haiti to study childhood diarrhea. He noted an increase in adult mortality related to diarrhea and with GHESKIO published the first comprehensive description of AIDS in the developing world in 1983.
Since the January 12th earthquake, GHESKIO and the good Dr. Pape has been providing humanitarian assistance and emergency care to literally thousands affected by the disaster and continues to provide life-saving medications to people with HIV/AIDS.
For a glimpse into the harrowing social and medical issues now facing Dr. Pape and GHESKIO, see this January 28, 2010, update he coauthored in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Visit GHESKIO for a recent NBC Nightly News interview with Dr. Pape.