Getting to Zero: HIV in my Haitian backyard

The conversation about HIV stigma is well overdue in the Haitian community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveillance data for HIV, from 2001 to 2007, Haitians accounted for 66.9 percent of the estimated 100,013 black adults and adolescents diagnosed with HIV infection in the United States.

Now is the time to initiate the dialogue about the stigma that infiltrates our beloved Haitian community.

As a young, Haitian American woman, I have toiled with the stigma. More than a decade ago HIV entered my backyard, a.k.a. “my family,” and stayed without my approval.

Back than I was unfit to welcome HIV into my life, let alone accept that it was the cause of death of a loved one. Although I am HIV negative, I was abashed to disclose to the world that HIV was part of my family. I spent more than a decade omitting the truth and engrossed with the HIV stigma. I was consumed with shame, as if I had the "HIV" letters writing on my back.

After some reflection, I came up with at least three reasons as to why I had welcome stigma into my life. The first was because of the frequent suggestions by researchers that Haitians had introduced HIV to the United States. The second reason was the decision made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ban Haitians from donating blood in the 1980's because it had identified Haitians as a high-risk group for HIV. And the last reason I came up with was simply that I lacked knowledge on HIV.

While I was growing up, HIV was not a frequent topic of conversation in my home. When it came up, it was attached to something negative like infidelity, promiscuity or a punishment. Those associations stayed with me into my adulthood. However, in my early 20s, I enrolled in a Masters of Public Health program and began learning about the true meaning of HIV stigma. UNAIDS defines HIV stigma as a "process of devaluation” of people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. I realized that for the past decade I had devalued the memory of a loved one and myself. And I was nowhere close to "getting to zero."

As time went on in graduate school, I learned more about HIV. I began walking the path of acceptance and seeing HIV for what it is: a disease. A disease that strikes the young, old, poor, rich, gay, straight, black and white. A disease that can make its way into your life and take someone that you love away.

But it's also a disease that we, the Haitian community, have in our own backyard. We can accept it and support UNAIDS and other world organizations in " Getting to Zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS related death.” By choosing to fight the HIV stigma we can increase HIV acceptance, adherence to treatment and prevention in our beloved Haitian community.

Joelle Pierre Louis is a Public Health graduate student at the Long Island University (LIU) of Brooklyn and a resident of Elmont, Long Island. She earned a Bachelor of Science with a concentration in Respiratory Care at the Long Island University of Brooklyn. She is a member of the AIDS Leadership Coalition (ALC) at the Haitian-American Community Coalition in Brooklyn, New York where she extends her passion for public service by creating campaign targeting HIV related issues in the Caribbean Community of Brooklyn.