Doctors in Haiti Fight Superstition, Poverty in War Against AIDS

A clinic in Haiti is addressing patient beliefs and circumstances that could be barriers to fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Getting people to adhere to HIV medication and practice safe sex are as important as drug access in Haiti, where Voodoo, superstition, unemployment, poverty and low education are prevalent.

"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 Port-au-Prince STD clinic whose name derives from the French for "Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi's sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections."

"I thought God would protect me, but he didn't," said Elisabeth Dumay, who continued sexual relations with her husband in the 1990s though she knew he was infected. He died in 1997. Dumay tested HIV-positive in 1998 and is now a social worker at GHESKIO, helping patients cope with new HIV/AIDS diagnoses and ensuring that patients adhere to treatment.

"We counsel spouses, family members, even Voodoo priests or anyone that has some influence on the community," said Dumay.

Many patients view antiretroviral drugs as dubious, said Dumay. "It's true it can be very unpleasant at first," she said, with ARVs triggering nausea, hallucinations and sleeplessness for a week in her own case.

The clinic provides patients support, offering food, phone cards and taxi rides to advanced AIDS patients. "We've adapted medical methods to succeed in the critical conditions in Haiti," Verdier said.

GHESKIO treated 2,600 patients with free ARVs in 2005 and hopes to reach 8,000 next year, said Dr. Jean William Pape, the clinic's founder. International aid programs and foundations provide the center's annual $1,600 per-patient cost, he said.