Voodoo doctor works against AIDS epidemic

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- When a critically ill AIDS patient comes to Philippe Castera, the voodoo priest consults with the spirits and often tells the patient to lie in a coffin for 24 hours.

The treatment isn't intended to attack the virus but the evil spirit believed to be causing the illness. Seeing the patient, Castera enters a trance, during which he says one of the spirits possesses him.

"If the spirit makes me slap my right thigh, I can work a cure. If it is the left thigh, he is incurable," the 49-year-old priest says.

As he speaks, he runs a cheese grater across a human skull to create a powder, which he puts into an elixir for the patient to drink. The red-and-black coffin is supposed to help weaken the evil spirit.

Voodoo evolved in the 17th century among African slaves brought to Haiti. It is often practiced in tandem with Catholicism. Followers believe in a supreme God and a world of mighty spirits who link humans with the divine.

With an estimated 5.2 percent of its 8.2 million people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, Haiti has one of the highest rates of infection in the Caribbean. Like the country's mainstream medical community, Haiti's voodoo priests have had to turn their efforts to treating the disease.

Castera and his wife, voodoo priestess Jeanette Joseph, treat every ailment from lovesickness to cancer.

"We are not the doctor. The doctor is the spirit," Castera said.