had been accepted for publication the news had already been released to the media that Haitians were at risk for AIDS. Our local newspaper had a front-page article entitled “Haitians Dying of ‘Gay Plague.’”
Other stories suggested that AIDS, in fact, had originated in Haiti and perhaps was related to secret Voodoo ceremonies involving the drinking of blood. These stories, usually accompanied by a picture of a Voodoo priest or priestess slaughtering a chicken or goat, I found particularly offensive. The implication was that one could get AIDS from drinking animal blood or that there were secret Voodoo ceremonies involving cannibalism, vampirism, or human sacrifice. Even having just begun the process of getting to know a few Haitians as real people rather than media caricatures, these stories infuriated me. I could only imagine how the Haitians felt.
Margaret appeared on television several times attempting to explain what we had discovered, but the media always seemed to edit her meaning. As an “insider,” it hurt to see how our work was being distorted and misrepresented in the press. Our discovery of 22 patients with AIDS was portrayed as a rising epidemic threatening to engulf the 150,000 Haitian immigrants residing in South Florida. The possibility of heterosexual transmission implied by our data further fueled the flames of sensationalism.
Spokesmen, including physicians, in the Haitian community were particularly upset with us. To a certain extent they were justified. Life for Haitian immigrants in Miami was difficult enough without having the entire community accused of introducing a modern-day plague. Haitians were both fired and not hired because the research performed by us played to the inherent bigotry of some employers. The Haitian community responded to this threat to its existence in our country by accusing us of being bad scientists. We hadn’t been able to talk to our patients in their native language; we didn’t understand the Haitian cultural taboos against homosexuality and therefore the reluctance of our patients to admit to such practices; we had failed to involve the Haitian community in our study.