Church leaders gather before AIDS conference, focus on children, stigma

| Bronwen Dachs | July 19, 2016 | 1 Comment
Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, special adviser on health and HIV/AIDS for Caritas Internationalis, opens a panel discussion during a July 16 gathering before the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, special adviser on health and HIV/AIDS for Caritas Internationalis, opens a panel discussion during a July 16 gathering before the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa. CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

One-third of HIV-positive children “die before their first birthday, and half before their second birthday,” so Catholic groups are advocating for changes in treatment, said Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis special adviser on HIV and health.

In a telephone interview from Durban, where Catholic groups met before the July 18-22 International AIDS Conference, Msgr. Vitillo also said groups were concerned about eliminating the stigma attached to AIDS.

About 70 people from Catholic groups who provide diagnosis, care and prevention programs for people living with HIV attended the July 15-17 meeting, organized by Caritas Internationalis and other Catholic organizations.

Archbishop Peter Wells, papal nuncio to South Africa, Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban and Dominican Sister Alison Munro, director of the AIDS office for the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, were among the speakers at the meeting that drew participants mostly from African countries, including Cameroon, Uganda and Swaziland.

The combination of antiretroviral drugs and their dosages are different for adults and children, Msgr. Vitillo told Catholic News Service. He said lack of access and information is severely harming infected children. Diagnostic tests for children are more expensive than those for adults and often are unavailable, he added.

Antiretroviral drugs hold the Human Immunodeficiency Virus in check and give patients a good chance of a long and relatively healthy life.

While the provision of treatment for children “is not a high-profit area for pharmaceutical companies, it is crucial to save lives,” Msgr. Vitillo said.

Church officials are in talks with major pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies to try to persuade them to develop and make available the necessary tests and life-saving drugs, he said.

About 36.7 million people are infected with HIV, the U.N. AIDS agency said in a July 12 report, noting that an estimated 1.9 million adults had become infected with HIV every year for at least the past five years.

Sheila Tlou, UNAIDS regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, and her counterpart in the Asia/Pacific region, Steve Kraus, told the Durban meeting that it is crucial the church continues its strong global response to AIDS, Msgr. Vitillo said.

At the epicenter of the worldwide AIDS pandemic, South Africa has about 7 million people infected with HIV in a population of about 53 million. It has the world’s largest treatment program, with 3.4 million people receiving antiretroviral drugs.

Discrimination and stigma attached to AIDS “are still very significant problems” in South Africa, said Bishop Kevin Dowling of Rustenberg, who addressed the Durban meeting July 16.

Because of fear of rejection by their families and communities, many people refuse testing “until it is too late and they can’t be saved,” he said in a July 17 telephone interview. It is mostly men, “for a range of reasons,” who seek diagnosis when it is too late for life-saving treatment, he said.

“Terrible suffering” is caused through some “pastors saying that AIDS is God’s punishment” for immoral behavior, he said.

“As church, we must preach a strong and clear message that God is full of love and compassion, and we should have those qualities ourselves as a faith community,” he said.

“Home carers need training in counseling, so that they know how to listen to people and accompany them as they face their fears,” he said.

“The provision of holistic care, including access to medical treatment, ongoing support” to infected people and their families, and working to eliminate stigma, should be a priority for the church, particularly in poor areas with minimal government health care services, Bishop Dowling said.

Jesuit Father Anthony Egan, a member of South Africa’s Jesuit Institute who specializes in history and ethics, told CNS July 17, “We need to reflect on what it means to be involved in AIDS ministry instead of simply responding to people’s immediate needs.”

Father Egan and Nontando Hadebe, who teaches at St. Augustine College in Johannesburg, addressed the Durban meeting on ethical issues related to HIV and AIDS.

“We need to move away from seeing ourselves as people working in the field of AIDS who happen to be Catholic” to a more sophisticated theology of conscience that enables a “deeper understanding of the social ethics, including why the church needs to respond” to the pandemic, Father Egan said.

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  • Charles C.

    Interesting.

    “Church officials are in talks with major pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies to try to persuade them to develop and make available the necessary tests and life-saving drugs . . .”

    Yet the same article mentions that half of the people with AIDS in South Africa are already getting the tests, drugs and treatment. Considering that many live in remote rural areas with no medical service, it’s hard to conclude that Western companies are ignoring the problem. Could they do more? Maybe, but the article gives no information on the subject. And there is no indication that “Church officials” are talking to the government to try to get some financial compensation for the companies which are being asked to give away expensive products.

    Another key point in the article is the problem of “stigma.” The only thing I can conclude is that the goal is to train South African society to believe that there is nothing particularly wrong with having multiple sex partners outside of marriage. If that kind of “judgment” occurs in society, the theory goes that people won’t want to go to a doctor to have AIDS tests or treatments. What? Do doctors post on the village bulletin board the names of everyone who comes in for AIDS testing? Society won’t criticize you for getting AIDS if they don’t know you have it. Besides, if you have it and don’t get treatment, your body will soon announce to the world that you’re infected. The way to avoid stigma is early detection and treatment. Unless someone can explain it to me more clearly, the stigma argument makes no sense.

    The Human Sciences Research Council of South Africa (HSRC) was established by the government 48 years ago and is South Africa’s major social science research organization. They published a report in 2014 on the subject of AIDS in South Africa. Among other things, the HSRC points out that the increasing number of South Africans with AIDS is due to two factors; new cases, and the decreasing mortality rate of those infected.

    “[T]he increased infection rate is “largely due to the combined effects of new infections and a successfully expanded antiretroviral treatment [ART] programme” – ART allow people with HIV to live significantly longer, leading to greater percentage of HIV-infected people remaining in society.”

    The HSRC points out that “[B]lack Africans had the highest HIV infection rate compared to all other race groups [15%]”, followed by coloured people (3.1%), Indians or Asians (0.8%) and whites (0.3%).”

    Why? They believe that it is partially because Blacks live in areas without proper sanitation and health care, are less likely to be married, In the “Gee, do ya think?” category, HSRC reports “HIV prevalence was found to be higher in the unmarried, cohabitating population than in the married population.”

    They also note that the majority of the people surveyed said they had never used a condom, and “People living together, who were not married, aged 15 to 49 years, had the lowest rate of condom use (33.8%).”

    Perhaps falling condom use is related to the fact that “Knowledge of how HIV is transmitted and prevented declined from 30.3% in 2008 to 26.8% in 2012 . . .”

    The HSRC also addressed the “stigma” issue:

    “Attitudes towards people with HIV have improved considerably since 2008. This could partly be the result of the wider availability of ARTs, as well as the fact that many people have been tested and know their HIV status.”

    I’m glad that the Church wants to reduce the incidence of HIV/AIDS, and ease the suffering of those who have it. I only wish I had some confidence in the people who say the solution is to send drugs and not criticize really stupid (and immoral) behavior which leads to contracting it.