Faith-based groups can help stem AIDS in Africa, say UN officials

By John Zarocostas
Posted Jul 20, 2012

[Ecumenical News International] Religion and faith-based groups play a very important role in many poor countries–especially in sub-Saharan Africa–in the fight to stem the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, senior United Nations health officials said on 18 July.

In countries such as Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, and Tanzania, they provide up to 40 percent of health services, said Paul De Lay, deputy executive director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).

Organizations run by Adventists, Catholics, Lutherans, and the Salvation Army specialize in hospitals and the delivery of healthcare services, said De Lay in an interview ENInews.

“They can also play a very powerful role in dealing with stigma and discrimination that surround the AIDS epidemic, welcoming people who are HIV positive–people who disclose their status within their congregations–rather than excluding them,” he added.

Though there have been examples of faith groups giving confusing information about condoms, or practicing discrimination, these have been exceptions, said De Lay.

“We see religion and faith-based organizations as a strong ally in the AIDS response. We need to work better with them,” he concluded.

Dr. Gottfried Hirnschall, director of the HIV department at the World Health Organization, told ENInews that faith-based health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa play a “tremendous role” in providing services, especially where efforts from the government and the private health sector are weak.

Sally Smith, partnership adviser and focal point for faith and religion organizations  at UNAIDS, said there is a “huge potential to scale-up” faith-based services, and noted the service they deliver far outweighs the number of grants they receive from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

A new UNAIDS study, “Together We Will End AIDS,” released on 18 July ahead of the upcoming XIX International AIDS Conference to be held in Washington, D.C. from 22-27 July, says Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV (23.5 million), new infections (1.7 million), and deaths due to AIDS (1.2 million).