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Haitians, healthcare community mourn pioneering doctor Paul Farmer


Farmer at a meeting in Kay Erin, Haiti. His idea was to bring Boston medicine to the island’s Central Plateau. Photograph by Gilles Peress.

NEW YORK — Dr. Paul Farmer, the infectious-disease specialist and medical anthropologist who co-founded Partners in Health – Haiti (PiH), passed away on Feb. 21 from an “acute cardiac event,” according to a spokesperson from the organization. He was 62.

Farmer was known for his decades of extensive work in Haiti dating back to the 1980s when he was a medical student at Harvard. His work in Haiti started when he began volunteering at a hospital in the central village of Cange, which would become the location of Zanmi Lasante, Partners in Health hospital and Haiti’s largest healthcare provider outside of the government. 

In his book “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, Farmer said he started the hospital after becoming increasingly frustrated that facilities throughout the country were turning away patients who had low or no income. 

“Literally the whole community in Cange is just reeling because Paul was something to everyone in that community,” said Elizabeth Campa, director of the University of Global Health Equity in Haiti. “When nobody cared about the people in Cange, Paul cared.”

In the U.S., numerous Haitian medical professionals said Farmer had done groundbreaking work and would be missed.

“Not only has Haiti lost a hero, but humanity has lost a hero,” said Mario St. Laurent, a pediatrician in Queens. “To me, he threw out every definition of impossible in the dictionary because of the work he did in Haiti, South America and Rwanda.”

Farmer initially developed an interest in Haiti after meeting Haitian-Americans working in an Alabama citrus grove. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in medical anthropology from Duke University in 1982, he went to Haiti to volunteer and learn Creole. 

From there, he would continue pioneering medical treatment in Haiti, most famously addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis that hurt the country beginning in the 1980s.

Partners in Health worked alongside the Haitian Global Health Alliance (GHESKIO) to focus on the transmission of the disease throughout the country, specifically the transmission from mothers to children.

A clinic he started in 1994 began to implement HIV testing and antiretroviral therapy to pregnant women, which caused rates of the disease to decline significantly. 

HIV/AIDS infections throughout the country decreased from 5.9% in 1996 to 3.1% in 2004, according to data from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Instrumental in PiH’s success in reducing the HIV/AIDS rate throughout the country were the accompagnateurs, health care workers who ensured patients took antiretroviral medications on time and offered emotional support.

Following his death in Rwanda while working to address medical education in the country, tributes poured in on social media.

“Saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Paul Farmer,” tweeted Canadian Medical Assistance Teams (CMAT). “A groundbreaker in Humanitarian Health, he preferred ‘a preferential option for the poor in health care’ in Haiti, Africa, Latin America, and was instrumental in getting AIDS treatments to the poor.” 

In 1992, his book “AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame” was published, focusing on debunking the racist stereotype that HIV came to the U.S. from Haiti, which was prevalent at the time.

He also established the University Hospital of Mirebalais with PiH after the devastating 2010 earthquake. A 250,000 square-foot building entirely reliant on solar power, the hospital holds over 350 beds and is instrumental in providing care to residents across the country. 

“Paul Farmer’s loss is devastating, but his vision for the world will live on through Partners in Health,” said PiH CEO Sheila Davis in an official statement. “Paul taught all those around him the power of accompaniment, love for one another and solidarity.”

Farmer is survived by his wife Didi Bertrand Farmer, a medical anthropologist and three children, of Miami.

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