In Haiti, Health Conference Gets an Emotional Start

Posted by , October 22, 2010 at 2:55am

In Haiti, Health Conference Gets an Emotional Start

Boucicault steals the podium to lead at least 200 people in a traditional beggar’s chant.

Port-au-Prince—Haitian AIDS activists from the country’s grassroots organization PHAP+ interrupted the first day of a health conference here by raising their voices in song, altering the words of traditional beggar’s chant to call for ramped up AIDS services in the disaster-torn nation.

With my begging bowl I’m begging
With my begging bowl I’m begging
It is not because I’m poor that I’m begging
Though I am poor

Led by Esther Boucicault, the country’s first person to publicly announce her HIV status, they continued:

It is for people who have AIDS that I’m begging for housing
It is for people who have AIDS that I’m begging for treatment
It is for people who have AIDS that I’m begging for jobs
It is for people who have AIDS that I’m begging for food

It was an emotional start to the 7th Annual National Haitian American Health Alliance Conference, a meeting of about 200 top health officials, policymakers and service providers who gather to discuss strategies for improving the nation’s struggling health system.

A full hour-and-a-half was dedicated to the status of HIV/AIDS services in the country, and three activists from PHAP+ took the opportunity to publicly criticize the Haitian government’s interim HIV/AIDS plan, which was released in March, specifically faulting the complete lack of transparency in its creation.

“As usual the AIDS organizations of people have been informed of this plan after its creation,” said Saurel Beaujour, the founder and former president of the coalition, which represents 13 AIDS service organizations spread about the country. “And there was no meeting of PHAP+ to give real input of the real needs of people with HIV/AIDS. The consequences of the January 12 earthquake changed nothing on how our government managers operate their programs.”

Meanwhile, in her presentation, Dr. Joelle Deas Van Onacker, the coordinator of HIV/AIDS for the country’s Ministry of Public Health and Population, simply highlighted the advances the country made in providing treatment before the quake. She later dodged a reporter’s question about how the ministry planned to track and halt the spread of HIV in the hundreds of camps still spread about the nation. “Despite the disaster, associations are working on this issue,” she said. “The people that are working at that level are loyal to what they are doing.”

Before the quake, Haiti had made enormous strides in both reducing its HIV infection rate—which stood at an alarming 6 percent as late as 2001—and improving access to services. But the disaster has both destabilized medical care and broken down social norms, and many on the ground here fear that the HIV-rate could soar again in the coming years. Ninety percent of HIV-positive people lost their homes in the quake, according to UNAIDS.

Women, who already represent more than 50 percent of new infections, according to the Ministry of Public Health and Population, are at particular risk, as the need for transactional sex has risen after the quake.

PHAP+ has warned repeatedly (including at the International AIDS Conference in July) that the government fails to see the urgency in coordinating a post-quake HIV prevention plan, especially for at-risk populations like sex workers and men who have sex with men. And chronic problems already in existence before the quake—like the lack of access to second-line drugs—have simply fallen off the ministry’s radar screens.

At the conference today, the mostly Haitian and U.S.-born audience joined the chanters in song. “Put simply,” said Beaujour. “This plan does not really address the problems or concerns of people living with AIDS.”

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