“It’s not impossible at all”
Bringing AIDS therapies, vaccine trials to the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere
Editor’s Note: This story, first published in 2004, has been updated.
Beset by frequent political turmoil, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It also has the highest rate of HIV infection on this side of the globe. Yet Haiti’s AIDS burden has never come close to the levels seen in some West African nations, and it seems to be declining.
“To me this is the most amazing thing. If you can do it here in this chaos, we know it can be done everywhere,” says pioneering Haitian physician Jean Pape, founder and director of the GHESKIO centers, the oldest AIDS research organization in the developing world.
By documenting HIV-tainted blood transfusions, GHESKIO convinced the Haitian Ministry of Health—its constant partner and supporter—to replace commercial blood banks with Red Cross blood centers. Encouraged by public education campaigns, condom sales have risen, and the HIV infection rate has been cut in half—to about 3 percent—since the mid-1980s.
GHESKIO is an acronym that—in French—stands for the Haitian Study Group on Kaposi's Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections. Since it was established in 1982, GHESKIO has received support from the National Institutes of Health and assistance from New York’s Weill Cornell Medical College, where Pape is professor of International Medicine and Infectious Diseases.
In the early 1990s, GHESKIO began a new relationship with Peter Wright, M.D., former chief of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Cornell and Vanderbilt provide medical expertise and help train Haitian physicians, and young U.S. physicians gain experience at GHESKIO treating HIV and other illnesses.
GHESKIO logs more than 100,000 patient visits a year for free testing, counseling and treatment. Thanks to lower-cost generic drugs, it was able to provide combination anti-retroviral therapy for the first time last year. So far, 1,000 patients have been treated. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 400,000 people who are infected in this Caribbean nation of 8 million.
Toward that end, Berthaud and his physician colleagues at Vanderbilt—David Haas, M.D., and Catherine McGowan, M.D.—are helping to establish an International AIDS Clinical Trial Unit in Port-au-Prince. “You have to be able to measure what you’re doing,” Wright explains. “Without a lot of training of physicians and education of the people, it won’t make sense to just spread out some anti-retroviral drugs.”
Over the years, GHESKIO has fostered a strong sense of trust and loyalty among Port-au-Prince residents, many of whom live in tin-roofed shacks without plumbing or electricity. GHESKIO patients are enrolling in clinical trials, and healthy subjects are signing up for tests of a candidate HIV vaccine.
Continued support from the United States is crucial, Pape says. Added GHESKIO patient Nicole Marcelin in 2004: “Remember what is on the dollar bill—‘In God We Trust.’ It means (Americans)… will help people who are living with the virus. When they help them, they also help themselves.”