Sophia Martelly: Haitians 'More Open' About HIV

In the early years of HIV and AIDS, Haiti was considered an epicenter of the epidemic. As dignitaries from around the world meet for the 19th International AIDS Conference, host Michel Martin speaks to Haiti's First Lady Sophia Martelly about the Caribbean island's progress against the epidemic and challenges that persist.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, like many people around the country, we've been thinking about that deadly shooting at a Colorado movie theater last week and we've been talking about all the issues it raises - mental health, the nation's gun laws, even race. Today, we're going to ask our panel of women journalists and commentators to offer their diverse perspectives. That's our Beauty Shop conversation and that's in just a few minutes.

But first, the 19th International AIDS Conference is underway in Washington, D.C. People have come from all over the world to share knowledge and their experiences about fighting AIDS in their countries. Today, we want to focus on Haiti. That nation was considered an epicenter of HIV infection in the early days of the epidemic.

In 1981, the Center for Disease Control listed the groups at risk of catching HIV in the United States as the four H's. I'm using their terms now. That is, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroine addicts, and Haitians. At the time, 6 percent of new AIDS cases in the U.S. were among Haitian immigrants, though their numbers in the general population were quite small.

At that time, some experts predicted that as much as a third of Haiti's population could be lost to the disease. But over the years, Haiti built up prevention, treatment, care, and support programs and even had some success reducing the infection rate, despite being one of the poorest countries in the world.

Still, the World Health Organization reports that prior to that devastating earthquake in January of 2010, there were 120,000 people living with HIV in Haiti. Those figures accounted for nearly half of all HIV positive people in the Caribbean. Haiti's first lady, Sophia Martelly, spoke at the International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. earlier this week and she was kind enough to join us now in our studios in Washington, D.C.

Your Excellency, First Lady Martelly, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for taking the time to visit with us.

SOPHIA MARTELLY: Thank you, Michel. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: When you spoke at the conference on Monday, you stressed the importance of building international cooperation and it made me wonder if you are worried that Haiti has somehow fallen off the radar, as it were, when it comes to HIV.

MARTELLY: Not really. The reason why we stressed out that we needed assistance and collaboration, not only from the international, I would say, donors, but also because of the region in which Haiti is, which is the Caribbean, we need to, as Caribbean nations, we need to come together to make this a common fight, and not every country doing their own fight. We need to really stand together to make a better - to fight this better.

MARTIN: You know, as we mentioned, before the earthquake that Haiti had the highest HIV infection rate in the Caribbean. Do you have any idea what factors led to that? I mean, recognizing that your, you know, your husband only took office very recently but you and he were active - and I mention for those who may not remember that your husband Michel Martelly, he came to power in May of 2011.

Before that he was a musician well known by his stage name Sweet Mickey, and you were his manager and you were very involved in a lot of issues then. Do you remember that time? Do you have any sense of why the infection, the epidemic, became so pronounced in Haiti?

MARTELLY: Very honestly, I do not have an answer to that but proudly I can say that we have turned the tide. We're now - we are at 2.2 percent versus 6 percent 15 years ago. So we have made major progress in Haiti. The past is the past. I want to move forward, and now we are working toward diminishing the number of cases found in Haiti.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that you're working on? And what are some of the steps that you and your husband have taken to try to address this?

MARTELLY: First of all, transmission from mother to child is of great concern to us and we are working on eradicating that, I would say, pretty soon. And the main concern we have right now is to see how we can build more clinics throughout the rural areas where women could be tested and treated.

Meaning, try to get the kids at birth to get the treatment where there could be, I would say, zero - free of HIV virus.

MARTIN: It may seem a ridiculous question, but I think many people remember that terrible earthquake that devastated the country. And we talked about the progress that Haiti had been making before the earthquake. Do you have a sense of how disruptive to your efforts, the efforts of the country, to fight HIV and AIDS the earthquake was? I mean, given the sort of massive, you know, damage to the infrastructure, the massive displacement of people. How big of a setback do you think it was?

MARTELLY: I don't think it was much of a setback because with the structures we have in place we were able to provide the needed ART to those that were already diagnosed. So I don't think the setback was much after the earthquake.

MARTIN: What else have you, if you wouldn't mind, what have you observed since you've become first lady? One of the things that the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, has talked about is the fact that, you know, one of her core issues is of military families, working with military families. And she's been quite candid to say that, you know, I thought I was very involved and I was very aware but this is - their needs and concerns became really real to me over the course of the campaign.

And I wanted to ask that, you know, I know that you traveled the country extensively, very well traveled, you know, as the manager of your husband's band before you became first lady, but I just wondered whether this particular experience has kind of opened some things up for you, has brought some things into your awareness that perhaps you were not as aware of before.

MARTELLY: I would say the conditions in which the people are living outside of the capitol where I live in the rural areas, and also the health care system. I have become more aware of the problems and the solutions that are needed to solve the health care situation in Haiti.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with the first lady of Haiti, Sophia Martelly. She is in Washington, D.C. for the International AIDS Conference. It's the 19th such conference and the first to be held in the United States in two decades.

What have been - and I just wanted to ask again, though, about your experience as first lady. How do - I'm curious about whether you feel that the stigma of HIV/AIDS has lessened both in Haiti itself and among the immigrants itself? I mean, you can imagine the kind of stigma that was attached to being either from Haiti or having HIV, given that the epidemic was so pronounced in Haiti. And I wonder if you think that aspect of it has changed over time.

MARTELLY: I think it has. It definitely has. And people are more aware of the virus, meaning we have over 95 of the population who know how to behave in order to avoid getting the HIV. It is more openly spoken about. Of course, there's still some stigmatization and discrimination, but we are working towards making everybody understand that it is a disease that can be, first of all, prevented and also treatment can be found.

We have over 38,000 patients on ART and we are working towards doubling that number.

MARTIN: ARTs being anti-retro virals.

MARTELLY: Yes.

MARTIN: Which is kind of the standard sort of treatment. Well, taking advantage of your time here in the States and in Washington, D.C. and in this area - and of course speaking to whoever is listening to us around the country - is there any particular other message that you would like to carry about the efforts that you are making and about how Haiti is carrying on in the wake of all the challenges that the country has faced?

MARTELLY: We are making a difference in people's life. As the chairperson of the country coordinating mechanism, we are trying to coordinate all the people involved in the HIV, I would say, sector. And to make sure that every dollar that we receive is accounted for and that we get results for the money we are being given.

So I think people should start understanding that Haiti is moving forward, that we are working towards changing the lives of the Haitian people to make their lives better. They can now feel, I would say, comfortable at helping out, whether it's with their technical skills or coming to provide us, to teach us how to do better in certain areas regarding health.

MARTIN: Is there any particular message that you would like to carry forward? Is there anything in particular that you would like people listening to our conversation to do? Give an assignment.

MARTELLY: Give an assignment. I'm going to give homework.

MARTIN: Give homework.

MARTELLY: I think the first thing I really would like people - not even to do, but to remember that, as I said previously, we are moving forward. The Haiti that was known or projected by people is no longer there. It no longer exists. We do have a new Haiti and everything that we - I would say the president, my husband - and the government - we're towards making people see what really - what Haiti is really about.

It's not about HIV. It's not about earthquake. We are real. We are beautiful and we are making tremendous progress, I think in the Caribbean region we are one of the countries making the most progress in the HIV - I would say HIV situation, if I may say. So I think this is it. It's not really an assignment, but it's a message for them to realize that Haiti is changing for the better.

MARTIN: And, before we let you go, Madam First Lady, and thank you again so much for taking the time to speak with us. How are you keeping the spirits of your own people up for the challenges that do remain? As we mentioned, there are still, you know, hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced and still a lot work to do. How do you keep their spirits up?

MARTELLY: I think by communicating, which was lacking in previous governments. Letting them know what is being done, sharing with them the progress that are being made. I think it is important to be able to share with them because this gives them hope and they can see - it's almost touchable - what progress is being made. Communicating, I think, is the best means.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. Thank you for taking the time to communicate through us and with this program. I see that giving interviews is not your favorite activity, so I do appreciate the fact that you were willing to extend yourself in this way.

Sophia Martelly is the first lady of Haiti. She is in Washington, D.C. for the 19th International AIDS Conference, which is being held this week, and she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios.

Excellency, thank you for speaking with us.

MARTELLY: Thank you, Michel. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, the first American woman to travel in space died this week of pancreatic cancer. Sally Ride was an inspiration to members of her generation and those that followed, but now her admirers are pondering another aspect of her identity as a gay woman. Was the decision to keep her sexual orientation out of her public profile until her death a matter of respecting her privacy and priorities or a missed opportunity for gay rights? The Beauty Shop ladies weigh in on that and other news of the week. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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