By Wyatt Massey
Music can connect people from all walks of life and help spread messages, which is why Nick Cannell gathered prominent Haitian musicians for a concert to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in Haiti.
Pwojè SIDA connected residents with free HIV tests, condoms, health information and referrals to medical professionals, said Cannell, executive director and co-founder of Konbit Mizik, a Haitian record label.
“If you really want to increase testing, you want to decrease new infections and you want to link people to life-saving care, you have to get people to the testing,” Cannell said. “Literally take the testing to them,” which is what he did on Aug. 27 on Rue Chevannes in Port-au-Prince.
According to the event website, 640 people received the oral HIV test and around 5,000 condoms were distributed. Rain pushed back the start time of the concerts–which featured Boukman Eksperyans, Barikad Crew, Roody Rood Boy, Dutty Yep Nishishi and Kiko Tru Rasta–but testing lasted all day.
The lack of availability of HIV tests is a driving factor keeping those living with the virus from receiving treatment, Cannell said. In a 2016 study of 7,354 men in Haiti, only 35 percent reported having been tested for HIV. Those who were married or had higher levels of education and wealth were more likely to have been tested. Cannell and his organization pushed for months to raise $15,000 for the event and get 2,000 oral HIV tests and 5,000 condoms donated.
Konbit Mizik partnered with Fondation Esther Boucicault Stanislas, Izolan Oye Oye and Health Education Action League (HEAL Haiti) for Pwojè SIDA. Gretha Fievre, founder of HEAL Haiti, said the event attracted her because of the public health impact on Haitians between 18 and 30 years old.
“If we don’t educate this population, we can give millions or trillions of condoms and the spread of the STDs will rise,” said Fievre, who also teaches nursing at two New York universities.
For example, Fievre said, many of the young people she worked with thought a single condom could be used multiple times. A condom is used to prevent pregnancy, they rightly told her. Yet, few had considered the contraceptive as a way to prevent the spread of disease, she said.
The spread of HIV in Haiti has decreased in recent years, dropping from an estimated 12,000 new infections in 2005 to an estimated 6,700 in 2013, according to a United Nations report on AIDS. Yet, the country lags behind its Caribbean neighbors. Haiti accounted for 57 percent of the estimated 12,000 new HIV infections and 59 percent of the estimated 11,000 AIDS-related deaths in the region in 2013, according to the United Nations. The country had the second-highest HIV prevalence rate in 2013 in the Caribbean region to the Bahamas.
Stigma surrounding the disease continues to affect Haitians in the country, as well as in the United States. Being Haitian was once considered a risk factor when the health organizations began recognizing the virus in the 1980s.
HIV would become known as the “4H disease,” Cannell said, because doctors were diagnosing it in homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs and Haitians. Many medical practitioners in the 1980s and 90s believed the HIV virus was brought to America by Haitian immigrants or homosexuals who had visited the country. In a 1982 memo, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection stated, “Physicians who care for Haitian patients should be aware that opportunistic infections may occur in this population.” Haitians were the only ethnic group singled out.
In his 1992 book “AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame,” researcher Paul Farmer described how Haitian-Americans faced years of job, housing and education discrimination because of the apparent connection. “A social-service organization in south Florida reported that, following the inclusion of Haitians on the CDC listing, it was suddenly unable to find job placements for a majority of its clients,” he writes. “The same organization also received hate mail, which conveyed such slogans as ‘Hire a Haitian–Help Spread AIDS.’”
The New York City Department of Health removed Haitians as an AIDS risk group in 1983 and the CDC followed suit nearly two years later. Yet, discriminatory practices remained. On April 20, 1990, more than 50,000 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to Lower Manhattan to protest a Food and Drug Administration blood donation policy, which the marchers said was prejudice toward Haitians.
Many researchers have reversed earlier theories about the spread of the disease, saying now that HIV/AIDS was brought to Haiti by tourists. Despite the correction, the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS continues, Cannell said.
“This disease has really struck fear in the hearts of Haitians,” he said, which is what motivated him to organize Pwojè SIDA. When diagnosed and monitored, the disease can be easier to live with than diabetes, said Cannell, who is a part-time master’s student in public administration at Baruch College.
Of the 640 people tested on August 27, 25 tested positive and were referred to a local clinic for a complete diagnosis and care, Cannell said. Konbit Mizik workers also collected 135 surveys and phone numbers to do follow-up outreach.
The concerts stretched well into the night, lasting until 6 a.m. the following day, Cannell said.
He wants to build on the momentum of Pwojè SIDA to connect more Haitians with medical services. The model is low cost and easy to replicate because it engages young people, he said. “With just enough hype and word of mouth, we’re accomplishing our goal.”