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At 28 years old, Mariette is a young energetic woman caressing hopeful dreams for her child. She mourns the death of her husband, who recently passed away from AIDS (Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome). Also infected by the HIV virus, she regularly receives a triple-drug therapy at the Justinien Hospital at Cap-Haitian. Regularly, Mariette and her daughter make the 45 minute trip from her hometown Limbé to Cap-Haitian to receive treatment. Like Mariette, many HIV-infected patients living in areas around Cap-Haitian travel to reach the Justinien Hospital for regular biological and clinical follow-ups.
Mariette is one of the lucky few able to benefit from antiretroviral treatments. While antiretroviral drugs have been available in industrialized countries since 1996, it was not until 2002 that Haiti received a substantial donation from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which led to the first treatment programs by two organizations fighting the disease on the field since its early days. In that same year, the World Health Organization released guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS for the first time in history.
Despite such tremendous progress, not every infected patient could benefit from therapy immediately after diagnosis, mostly because of the high cost of treatment and the lack of health insurance. As noted by United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, “by 1998, while 95 percent of people with HIV were living in poor countries, almost none had access to antiretroviral therapy, which then cost $12,000 to $16,000 a year per patient.” Among other reasons, it seems that this is how the World Health Organization determined patients’ treatment eligibility because it was simply too expensive to provide medication to everybody; so they prioritized the patients who were in more advanced stages of the disease, those who were much sicker. Therefore, it was not until Mariette became very sick that she was finally admitted to the hospital and was declared eligible for drug therapy in accordance to the 2010 guidelines, which are currently used in Haiti. This delay, from the diagnosis time to the start of her treatment, increased the risk of transmission in addition to other health consequences. Unfortunately, this is currently the story of millions of other HIV-infected people.
However, to decrease the spread of HIV/AIDS and ultimately eliminate it by 2020, scientists are planning a bolder strategy, named “test-and-treat”. The suggested strategy entails the initiation of therapy immediately after a positive HIV test, regardless of the biological and clinical parameters, as it used to be. Regarding this new approach, a recent publication on the medical journal The Lancet stated that: “Instead of dealing with the constant pressure of newly infected people, mortality could decrease… Transmission could be reduced to low levels and the epidemic could go into a steady decrease towards elimination.” As of this writing, test-and-treat represents the core strategy in WHO guidelines for HIV treatment, published in September 2015, 13 years after the original publication. If the Haitian government works to apply this as part of the national plan to eliminate HIV/AIDS in Haiti, more people like Mariette can start therapy sooner than she did and will have a higher chance of survival, without passing the virus to another generation.
Today, Haiti is at a crucial point in the history of the 30 year-old pandemic, but faces many challenges to achieve the desired goal. In order to meet the gigantic promises of test-and-treat, the Haitian government must work towards a sound reinforcement of the healthcare system with a focus on the people by preventing the massive exodus of qualified health professionals. The fight against discrimination and stigma must become a priority, because every man’s life is valuable no matter his status in society. The number of testing centers in Haiti must increase for early detection. The government needs to establish adequate cooperation with international partners in order to have available drugs for every infected patient. And most of all, we must continue to educate the youth about this virus. Marie-Ange, Mariette’s daughter is only twelve years old. However, Mariette ensures that she transmits her knowledge and experience fighting HIV to her young daughter. At the end of the day, as the sun began to retreat, Mariette boarded another tap-tap with her daughter to rejoin their community in Limbé. Because of the antiretroviral treatment, Mariette continues to hope.