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Posted June 12, 2006
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New Book Chronicles AIDS in Haiti


University of Miami physician working to improve medical care in Haiti takes readers on his 25-year journey through the AIDS epidemic here and in Haiti in a new book.

The first time Dr. Arthur Fournier picked up his pen to tell the story of AIDS in the Haitian community, in 1991, he put it down. There was no happy ending.

Fast forward 15 years. Though a happy ending remains to be found for the deadly disease, Fournier at least has found something today he didn't have then: lessons learned.

''Maybe these lessons I've learned have benefits to the public at large,'' Fournier, a University of Miami Medical School associate dean, said.

Fournier has chronicled those lessons in a 297-page book, The Zombie Curse, A Doctor's 25-year Journey into the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic in Haiti.

'There is a message that needs to be sent: `Science alone isn't going to win the war against AIDS or any disease,' '' said Fournier, who plans to use proceeds from the book to help support Project Medishare, the UM-affiliated charity he founded in 1994 to help improve healthcare among Haiti's poor.

To win the war, Fournier argues, doctors and others have to ``understand the politics, the culture and the history . . . coupled with a real bond with the people.''

Fournier not only attempts to demonstrate his point by giving readers a guided tour of Haiti's slums and rural communities but through the work the charity does in Thomonde, a town built on the French village model in Haiti's central plateau region.

The town has become a hallmark in Project Medishare's fight not to just provide healthcare, but to demonstrate the challenges that doctors, and the Haitian people, face in fighting AIDS and other diseases.

To understand the impact of the epidemic -- and the work being done in Haiti -- one has to understand the stigmatization of the disease among Haitians.

Fournier begins his journey with a guided tour through the medical corridors of Jackson Memorial Hospital in the early 1980s. As the disease spread, Jackson became a place where Fournier and others ''saw firsthand the chaos, confusion and blame'' associated with the disease, he wrote.

Haitians, who began showing up at Jackson in disproportionate numbers, soon became scapegoats, stigmatized as carriers of the virus that causes AIDS.

''We didn't understand the Haitian people, and we had no bond to them,'' Fournier said. ``All we had was epidemiology. The only thing we could see they had in common was they were from Haiti. Our cultural incompetence at the time unfairly stigmatized the Haitian people.''

Fournier concedes that ``guilt played a large amount in pushing me to try and get involved in helping in Haiti.''

But Zombie Curse isn't about blame. It's a story about a doctor -- and a small charity from Miami struggling to heal poor rural Haitians on a shoestring budget of $600,000 annually. It's also about overcoming obstacles in a country plagued by violence, political upheaval and superstition.

The book's title speaks to the sometimes-fatalistic attitude many Haitians adopt once they find out they have an illness they can't explain.

''We did that here,'' Fournier said. ``We attributed blame to protect ourselves from the AIDS epidemic when we didn't understand it. We blamed the victim.''

The third part of the title's metaphor, Fournier said, is the fact that even on the 25th anniversary of the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, ``We are sleepwalking through the real forces that are driving the prejudice. We are never going to be free from those stereotypes and stigmatization until we understand the true forces that are driving the infection and are willing to do something about them.''

Reprinted from The Miami Herald of Sunday, June 11, 2006., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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