Don’t let new AIDS study scapegoat Haitians

By Edwidge Danticat, November 7, 2007

A new study on the early path of the AIDS epidemic threatens to stigmatize Haitians and Haitian-Americans once again.

Late last month, a group of researchers published a study that concluded that the explosion of the AIDS pandemic in the United States resulted from the virus first being brought from the Congo to Haiti around 1966 and then to the United States “after a single migration of the virus out of Haiti in or around 1969.”

Now I am not a scientist and I don’t pretend to understand every detail of the research conducted by the group, led by Michael Worobey of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona. (The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)

But prominent physicians argue that the group’s conclusions are highly debatable. And, by pinning the blame on a Haitian “immigrant host,” they could have potentially devastating consequences.

Worobey and his colleagues based their study on the blood samples taken from five Haitians in the early 1980s, patients who all happened to have been treated by a collaborator in the study, Dr. Arthur Pitchenik of the department of medicine at the University of Miami. Dr. Pitchenik had collected and sent their blood samples to the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The Haitians’ blood samples were later compared with 117 other samples from non-Haitians, and the Haitians appeared to have the oldest strain outside of Africa.

The scientific value of the research, we are told, is — aside from historical curiosity — to help study mutations for a potential AIDS vaccine, which would indeed be good news for everyone.

But one of the critical problems with the study is how sweeping a conclusion it draws from research that involves such a tiny group of people. “This is very slender evidence on which to base such a grand claim,” Dr. Paul Farmer, a professor of medical anthropology who has been fighting the AIDS epidemic in Haiti, told the Miami Herald.

What’s more, the study places inordinate significance on its Haitian “immigrant host” when other carriers are equally if not more plausible.

First of all, there were only a relatively small number of Haitians working in the Congo, and of these, many chose not to return to Haiti because it was under a brutal dictatorship at the time.

Second, there were plenty of missionaries, aid workers, Peace Corps volunteers and revolutionaries returning from the Congo to the United States and other parts of the world who also could have spread the virus.

Previous claims on the origins of the AIDS epidemic have proven to be wrong, so we should look at the current one with a great degree of caution. The hunter theory that blamed Africans for eating bush meat, the vaccine theory that blamed scientists for making guinea pigs out of millions of people, and the Patient Zero theory that blamed one promiscuous Canadian flight attendant all have for the most part been abandoned.

The problem with the Haitian hypothesis is that by the time it is further elaborated, vetted, debated, clarified and scientifically contested, the lives of thousands of people may be irrevocably altered, just as they were in the early 1980s, when as the only high-risk group identified by nationality, Haitians lost jobs, friends, homes and the freedom to emigrate.

At that time, a struggling Haitian tourism industry was crushed. Children, including myself, were taunted or beaten in school by their peers. One child shot himself in a school cafeteria in shame. Haitians who tried to donate blood faced a ban by the Food and Drug Administration, which eventually realized that banning donors by nationality was not the answer as much as more thorough screening of the entire blood supply.

Already, in one public discussion in Miami, a caller on a radio talk show jeered that all Haitians should be kept out of the United States.

The truth is, as long as the pandemic exists, it is all of our problem, however it started, whoever carried it, and whoever is now infected by it.

Stigmatizing Haitians will do nothing to solve that problem.

Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American writer living in Miami. She won the American Book Award in 1999 for “The Farming of Bones.” Her most recent book, “Brother, I’m Dying,” is a finalist for the National Book Award . She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.