Haitian government officials yesterday said that the Haitian people had been associated unfairly with the outbreak of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in the United States, casting a "pall of gloom over the country" that has harmed the Caribbean nation's precarious economy.
"A whole population should never have been given this stigma," said Dr. Ary Bordes, the Haitian minister of health. He said there were "quite a few flaws" in sampling and classification methods used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to identify Haitians as being at high risk for the mysterious disease.
"Compared with all the other health problems we have, AIDS is not a major concern," Bordes said. But he said "it is coming to the forefront" as a major economic problem because of an estimated 75 percent decline this year in the tourist trade, the largest portion of Haiti's $1.34 billion economy.
Bordes presented data on the incidence of the disease in Haiti at an international symposium on AIDS in the Americas convened this week by the Pan American World Health Organization.
Bordes said physicians have identified 157 suspected cases of AIDS in Haiti, a mountainous nation about the size of Maryland, with a population of about 6 million. (Maryland had about 4.2 million people in 1980.)
"The public perception is that those at risk for AIDS are the ones responsible for spreading the disease," Bordes said in an interview. He said this has been "traumatic" for the Haitian people, described as "victims, not carriers," of the disease.
Dr. Harold Jaffe, a CDC epidemiologist, said Haitians comprise 5.3 percent of the total number of cases in the United States, a number that is high enough to justify their classification as a separate high-risk group.
The disorder, which destroys the body's immune system and leaves victims vulnerable to fatal infections, has primarily affected male homosexuals and intravenous drug abusers. As of Aug. 1, CDC reported, 1,972 people have contracted AIDS and of the total, 759 have died.
Federal health officials are sensitive to the concern that Haitians may have been prematurely identified as a risk group.
Assistant Secretary of Health Dr. Edward N. Brandt Jr. said in recent congressional testimony that "because sociocultural differences may lead to problems in obtaining sensitive personal information from Haitians residing in the United States," the identification of Haitians as a risk group "must be interpreted cautiously."
Jaffe added that the CDC is recruiting investigators who speak Creole and are familiar with Haitian culture for pilot projects in Miami and New York designed to gauge the accuracy of case reporting methods.
Dr. Ronald St. John, chief of epidemiology for the Pan American World Health Organization, said there was "really no danger" that travellers visiting Haiti would contract AIDS.
He said that the disease, which is believed to be spread only by contact with the blood or semen of infected people, has been reported in 10 countries.
But he said "active transmission" among high-risk groups appears to be occurring only in Canada, Haiti and the United States.
Haitian Ambassador Fritz N. Cineas said recently that misunderstanding of the suspected AIDS-Haiti link "has created a pall of gloom over the country, deterring potential business investors and tourists."