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Fighting AIDS in Impoverished Haiti

June 25, 2001 -- In privileged countries, expensive drug cocktails have transformed AIDS, by substantially arresting the disease and preserving the health of those who have it.

AIDS patient St. Ker stands next to his coffin
One year ago Haitian AIDS sufferer St. Ker picked out his own coffin and prepared to die, but treatment kept him alive "like Lazarus in the Bible."
Photo: Richard Knox, NPR

But drug companies and some world leaders -- including top Bush administration officials -- say such treatments aren't practical in resource-poor regions where millions are afflicted.

People in poor countries can't be relied on to take the medicine consistently, these critics contend. And clinics and hospitals lack the necessary laboratory equipment and personnel, they say. As part of NPR's coverage of the UN special session on AIDS, Correspondent Richard Knox set out to examine these contentions.

In the rural Haiti settlement of Cange, Knox found "something remarkable, something that many say can't be done" -- a clinic that's successfully treating some of the world's poorest and sickest AIDS patients, at far less cost than in rich countries. In Creole, the clinic is called Zanmi Lesante - Partners in Health.

When a 42-year-old named St. Ker came to the clinic a year ago, HIV had reduced the six-foot-tall man to an emaciated 80 pounds.

Dr. Paul Farmer and AIDS patient Nerlandé
Dr. Paul Farmer, left, founder of Zanmi Lesante, with recovering AIDS patient Nerlandé
Photo: Richard Knox, NPR

"To tell you the truth," St. Ker says now, "I didn't come here for treatment. I came as a dead man… literally, I had my coffin."

After a year taking potent AIDS drugs, he's back from the brink of death -- "like Lazarus in the Bible" -- and his coffin is in storage.

There are many latter-day Lazaruses walking these hills, and dozens of empty new coffins hidden away like St. Ker's, according to Dr. Paul Farmer, the driven Boston physician who founded Zanmi Lesante 16 years ago.

Farmer's clinic "is one of the only places in the world that routinely offers life-saving treatment to the poorest AIDS patients," Knox reports. "Some think it shows how advanced AIDS treatments can be delivered in other poor countries."

To learn more about Farmer's program, visit the Partners in Health Web site.

In Haiti – the Western Hemisphere nation most afflicted by AIDS – NPR correspondent Knox reports on efforts to treat women who are HIV-positive, so they won’t transmit the disease to their children.
• Enter the photo gallery to learn more.
• For more information on Rainbow House, visit the Haitian Ministries Web site.