PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) — As the world marks AIDS day on Saturday, Haitian scientists are assessing a claim that the impoverished country was a stepping stone in the global spread of the deadly disease.
The claim has infuriated Haitian authorities who said it could stigmatize the Caribbean nation, and promptly ordered the creation of a scientific task force to investigate the allegation.
A study published last month said the strain of HIV that touched off the US AIDS epidemic and fueled the global scourge of the disease came to the continent from Africa via Haiti.
"Haiti was the stepping stone the virus took when it left central Africa and started its sweep around the world," said Michael Worobey, an assistant professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, and senior author of the paper.
He said the virus probably arrived on US shores in about 1969, more than a decade before the full-blown US AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and may have been carried there by a single Haitian immigrant.
"Professor Worobey's study could cause prejudice against the Haitian community because of its stigmatizing nature," Haitian authorities said in a statement this week.
"The Haitian government formed a task force made up of Haitian and foreign specialists in order to achieve objective and scientific arguments," the health ministry said.
The group is made up of about 20 medical experts, mainly from the Haitian GHESKIO research group that works in collaboration with the US Cornell university.
"We are working with foreign specialists to prepare a scientific response to this study," Health Minister Robert Auguste told AFP.
The recent study had stirred outrage in Haiti, where many see it as racist.
"There are different theories about HIV/AIDS. Professor Worobey did not bring any solution with his study," said Amadou Mbaye, who heads the UNAIDS office in Haiti.
The study also stirred widespread anger among the large Haitian community in New York. "Within the Haitian community, we consider the study as an attack against Haitians," said Jean Robert Desrouleaux, a medical doctor.
The study sought to answer the riddle as to how the virus got to the United States from central Africa, where it first surfaced in humans around 1930 after jumping species from chimpanzee to man.
Worobey and a team of international researchers conducted genetic analyses of archived blood samples from early AIDS patients who migrated from Haiti to the United States.
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