AIDS and the Church in Africa

The Christian Century, August 2, 2000 | Go to article overview

AIDS and the Church in Africa


IN THE DECADE or so since AIDS emerged as an epidemic in Africa, the deadly disease has devoured some 19 million lives worldwide and is expected to slice life expectancy to as low as 30 in some African nations. As skyrocketing infection rates promise more to come, faith-based relief agencies have enlisted a new ally in their own battle with the viral monster: African churches.

"In my experience I've found that really it is the Church that has been taking care of the dying and even making some attempt at HIV/AIDS prevention," said Ann Doherty, director of programming for Catholic Medical Mission Board. The not-for-profit charity, based in New York, is gearing up to launch its own AIDS/HIV counseling program on the continent this fall. "And it is the churches that come forward to take care of orphans of AIDS victims," Doherty said. "The churches have been there all along, so it only makes sense to work together."

Any real dent in the AIDS epidemic cannot be made without the help of African churches, said Debbie Dortzbach, director of an HIV/AIDS prevention program in Africa run by World Relief, the international aid arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. "The church is already established in the community. It is usually well respected, and it has a ready audience," said Dortzbach.

Dortzbach is one of several World Relief staffers who attended the 13th International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, which ended July 14. "When churches use their position in the community to distribute accurate information, they can sometimes be more effective than clinics and other health institutions, which are so busy with so many numbers of patients that they don't really have the time to sit down and counsel very often," she said.

In Dortzbach's view, churches play a large role in encouraging responsible personal behavior and can offer a spiritual context for prevention messages in secular campaigns. "Messages about abstinence and faithfulness are out there, but it is the church that can really illustrate and address those issues most effectively," said Dortzbach. "The church gives the necessary context about faithfulness and abstinence until marriage."

In Rwanda, World Relief has teamed up with churches to distribute about 2,000 manuals for people who provide home care to people infected with the virus. Some caregivers are as young as ten years old, said Dortzbach. "We went that young because our experience has shown us time and time again that the children are often the primary caregivers for their parents dying of AIDS," she went on to say, noting that the manual will be adapted for use in other countries, including Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa. "The need for home care is overwhelming, and the resources for meeting that need outside the home are nonexistent nearly everywhere."

Catholic Relief Services, the overseas relief arm of the United States Catholic Conference, plans to do the same in Kenya, a nation often considered the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, said Susan Hahn, who served as the organization's East Africa regional director for the past seven years and is now director of program quality support. The group's AIDS/HIV prevention programs in Africa stretch back ten to 15 years and include mobile clinics and programs in Catholic schools in Burundi. "You can't be involved in health and social services in Africa without dealing with the AIDS crisis," said Hahn. "We have shifted our focus from hospital-based care to community-based care, and local churches are definitely a huge help with that."

The Medical Mission has already entered a five-year partnership to fight AIDS with the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference and pharmaceutical powerhouse Bristol-Myers Squibb. The mission will donate $1 million--25 percent of its health-care budget--to AIDS/HIV prevention programs in South Africa for the next five years.

"AIDS is such an extraordinary epidemic, the religious community is obligated to help," said Doherty. …

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