A prominent Haitian-American physician yesterday told a House subcommittee that federal health officials acted on insufficient scientific evidence when they identified Haitians as among the groups that run a high risk of contracting Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
"To date, no epidemiologic survey has ever been conducted among the Haitian population of the United States," said Dr. Jean-Claude Compas, vice president of the Haitian Medical Association Abroad and head of the Haitian Coalition on AIDS.
"Most of the data used by the CDC federal Centers for Disease Control and other health authorities were gathered by hospital-based physicians with no knowledge of French or Creole" who have "admitted their complete ignorance of the intricacies of Haitian culture," Compas said. Because of these limitations, he said, U.S. health investigators had prematurely placed all Haitians into the AIDS risk category.
The young French-trained physician, who is affiliated with the Downstate Medical Center in New York City, spoke before members of the House Government Operations subcommittee on intergovernmental relations and human resources in the first day of hearings on the federal response to AIDS.
AIDS is a deadly new ailment that destroys the body's ability to fight infection, leaving victims vulnerable to a host of illnesses, including rare forms of cancer and pneumonia. As of July 26, the CDC reported, 1,922 people have contracted the syndrome and 743 of these have died. Most were male homosexuals or intravenous drug abusers.
About five percent of the total number of confirmed AIDS cases have been Haitians that did not appear to fit into the larger risk groups, so federal health investigators last year identified Haitians as a third high-risk group, along with hemophiliacs, who were thought to have contracted the syndrome from contaminated blood products.
Dr. David Senser, New York City's commissioner of health and a former CDC director, recently ordered that Haitians be removed from the high-risk group in the health department's classification system "because the number of Haitians that do not fit somehow into one of the other risk groups is too small when compared to the total number of cases," said Bruce Berent, a health department spokesman.
Dr. Harold Jaffe, a CDC epidemiologist, said investigators "have been very uneasy about this from the beginning." He referred to the difficulties of obtaining accurate information about personal habits from Haitian AIDS patients. "Homosexuality and certain illnesses are not freely discussed in Haiti," he said. Complicating matters, he added, is that a significant number of the 500,000 to 750,000 Haitians in this country do not have legal immigration status.
Jaffe said that the CDC has initiated a program to enlist investigators who speak Creole and are familiar with Haitian culture for pilot projects in Miami and New York to gauge case-reporting accuracy.
Earlier, three AIDS victims, Michael Callen of New York, Roger Lyon of San Francisco and Anthony Ferrara of Washington, opened the hearing with testimony about how their lives have changed. They called for accelerated research efforts to understand the disease. Lyon, 34, said, "I came here today with the hope my epitaph won't read 'He died of red tape.'"