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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