The HIV virus gets to Haiti
When the Belgians withdrew 87,000 nationals from the Belgian Congo, it left 80% of the government posts unoccupied. All areas of the government suffered, including education. Colonization had elevated the role of European teachers and created a dearth of native Congolese teachers. The United Nations stepped into the education crisis and began to hire teachers who spoke French, the language of the Congo. Many teachers came from Belgium, but the bulk of them were French-speaking, black Haitians who were more similar in ethnicity to the Congolese than were the Belgians. Forty-five hundred Haitian teachers moved to Zaire (the country’s new name).
The HIV virus migrated from the sex worker population to the general population and increased by twelve times in the next ten years. As will happen, the Haitian teachers were having sex with Zairians, many of whom were infected with HIV. The virus’s silent passage throughout Africa, and its manifestation as AIDS-related illnesses, still hadn’t been noticed. One would expect that before long, as the Haitian teachers in Zaire moved back home, HIV/AIDS would migrate to the population of Haiti.
Indeed, that is exactly what happened, and once there, it again spread silently through sexual intercourse. That is, until another economically motivated disaster happened.
In the 1970s, nearly 20% of the blood plasma used in the United States was imported from third-world nations, Haiti being the largest single supplier. Luckner Cambronne, also known as “the Vampire of the Caribbean,” opened Hemo-Caribbean, a massive plasma center in Port-au-Prince. Due to his connections with the very corrupt President Francois Duvalier (Papa Doc), Cambronne was able to freely operate Hemo-Caribbean under extremely poor hygiene conditions from 1971 to 1972.
Hemo-Caribbean collected blood from up to 850 people each day and exported 1,600 gallons of plasma each month to the United States. Blood from donors of the same blood type was pooled at the time of collection, the plasma was removed, and platelets were injected back into the donors, along with any infectious blood from other donors in a given session. Unsterilized needles and tubes were in constant use and re-use.
Following a New York Times exposé on the lack of hygiene in the blood trafficking facility, Hemo-Caribbean was shut down in 1972. But it was already too late.
Ten years later, as would be scientifically expected, there was an escalation in the death rate among Haitians and hemophiliacs (the prime consumers of blood plasma) due to AIDS-related illnesses contracted from the HIV-infected blood from Haiti.
Evidence supports this: From 1979 to 1981, there were eighteen cases of AIDS diagnosed in Haitians living in the United States; all eighteen individuals were dead within six months. In interviews with the HIV/AIDS-infected Haitians before they died, all stated that they had only engaged in heterosexual sex. At the same time, several Haitians in Haiti were diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a disease never previously seen among the native Haitian population.
How did HIV/AIDS get to the United States?
Sex tourism between the United States, Canada, and Haiti increased in the 1970s and 1980s. Straight and gay men and women traveled Haiti to participate in sex tourism. In 1979, Port-au-Prince hosted an international gay men’s conference. The French-Canadian airline steward, Gaetan Dugas, famously dubbed “patient zero” by journalists, was known to have participated in sex tourism in Haiti. Dugas was later sexually linked to forty of the first 248 HIV/AIDS diagnoses in the United States. He died in 1984 of AIDS-related complications.
Early in 1980, reports emerged in California and New York of a small number of men diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, and/or a form of pneumonia, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP). Both diseases are normally found in people with severely compromised immune systems. But in this case, all the men were young, generally in good health, and gay.
The disease cluster was first identified in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) publication, in June 1981. A month later, forty-one gay men had been diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma. By the end of 1981, there were six new cases being reported each week.
Soon heterosexual men and women, half of them intravenous drug users, were also diagnosed with the disease. Later that same year, the acronym “AIDS” came into use, meaning acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. In December 1982, three heterosexual hemophiliacs died from PCP and other opportunistic diseases. Suddenly, a handful of Haitians living in New York City were also diagnosed with PCP and died quickly. The disease came to be associated with “the four H’s”: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and Haitians.
By the time President Ronald Reagan would publicly address HIV/AIDS in February 1986, 21,000 Americans would be dead from AIDS and 36,000 Americans would be living with HIV.
This information is found and footnoted in Walking the Bridgeless Canyon by Kathy Baldock, Chapter 8.
READ the other five parts of this special series on HIV/AIDS:
What Caused the Onset of HIV/AIDS? Colonialism
C. Everett Koop — A Hero During the AIDS Crisis
How I Responded to the AIDS Crisis in the 1980s
The Face of AIDS Becomes a Child — Ryan White
Early Christian Responses to Epidemics Completely Unlike the 1980s Response