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a492: AIDS battle at an impasse (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

AIDS battle at an impasse
By Michael Deibert

January 23, 2002

PORT-AU-PRINCE  Surrounded by posters of smiling couples holding packets of
condoms, students, educators and officials gathered at a health clinic
recently for some honest talk on AIDS, a key step in the fight against the
public health scourge of this impoverished Caribbean nation.

Haiti's government has pressed ahead with attempts to halt the spread of a
disease that stigmatized Haitians in the 1980s despite an ongoing political
crisis that has strangled the flow of foreign aid destined for the front
lines of the AIDS war.

Amid raucous cheers and speeches at the clinic in Petionville, a suburb of
Port-au-Prince, a young man barely out of his teens told the assembled
crowd: "This may be difficult for some of us to talk about. We may be
embarrassed, we may want to laugh. But we need to talk about it."

Brightly painted banners bearing public health slogans, posters promoting
condoms, frank public discourse and a growing number of clinics are all part
of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's ambitious battle plan against AIDS,
one of a series of social reforms proposed by Haiti's first freely elected
leader in his second term in office.

The task facing this nation of 8 million people is enormous.

About 30,000 new cases of AIDS were diagnosed in Haiti last year. Although
the spread of the disease has stabilized somewhat in recent years, about 4.5
percent of the population, 360,000 people, is infected, the highest rate in
the region, according to the Ministry of Health.

"We have a detailed plan for fighting AIDS from 2002 through 2006," said
Public Health Minister Henri Claude Voltaire. "It's a plan that was created
by experts, not government ministers, although they are certainly involved."

There are clinics for HIV and AIDS testing and treatment in the capital of
each of Haiti's nine departments and two in the national capital,
Port-au-Prince. The government plan calls for increasing the number.

But the plan is being stymied by a political quagmire stemming from disputed
parliamentary elections in May 2000 that led to the suspension of $500
million in foreign aid.

Talks are under way to rerun some of the elections, but the aid package has
become a political football between Aristide and his opponents, with
Haitians trapped on the sidelines.

"We need the loans so we can have clinics throughout the country to provide
free testing and assistance to people in their own communities, so they
don't have to travel all the way to the capital to get testing or to get
treatment," said first lady Mildred Aristide at a youth group meeting on

The Inter-American Development Bank gave Haiti a $1 million grant, a small
portion of the $22 million needed to fight AIDS, Voltaire said.

"This money to combat AIDS is still dependent on the re-running of the May
2000 elections, as if AIDS were a political issue," Voltaire said. "Well,
it's not, and that's not logical. There's no ... effective reason whatsoever
why they haven't freed up this money."

The United States, despite dispensing more than $4 million to
nongovernmental organizations working in the country, said recently that it
was not inclined to release the aid.

"The government of Haiti has not made sufficient progress in implementing
President Aristide's commitment to resolve flawed elections ... strengthen
democracy, address security and migration issues and improve respect for
human rights," the State Department said.

The poorest country in the Americas with average per capita income of about
$400 a year and almost two-thirds of its people malnourished, Haiti suffered
the stigma of AIDS in the 1980s when health officials in the developed world
named Haitians a high-risk group for the sexually transmitted disease then
thought to be a virtual death sentence.

The Ministry of Health estimates HIV infection rates in Haiti are highest in
the poor, rural northwest and northeast departments, with 13.9 percent and
6.25 percent of the population infected, respectively.

This is substantially higher than the national average of 4.5 percent and
the government said it is acutely aware of the need for community-based
health programs.

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