Panelists Say Faith-based Groups Lead the Way in Addressing AIDS Crisis. 10/6/11
Faith-based organizations remain at the international forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention
New York -- Despite challenging cutbacks in funding, , treatment and patient advocacy, according to speakers at a panel discussion June 8 at Holy Family Church in New York.
The work of faith-based organizations underpins the human dignity of people who live with HIV and AIDS and of their families, they said.
"Faith-Based Action to Achieve Universal Access" was sponsored by the Catholic Medical Mission Board, Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic HIV/AIDS Network. It was held in conjunction with the U.N. General Assembly's high-level meeting on HIV/AIDS June 8-10.
Dr. Paul De Lay, deputy executive director of UNAIDS, the joint U.N. program on HIV/AIDS, said the world body had a goal of universal access to comprehensive prevention programs, treatment, care and support for the millions of people affected by the virus. He said 6.6 million people were taking anti-retroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS at the end of 2010 and 9 million more still needed the treatment.
"Universal access is not about what happens," he said, "but who it happens to. How do we reach the people who don't have information, knowledge and access, the people who are deliberately excluded?"
De Lay said faith-based organizations excel at prevention and treatment efforts but have been underutilized by the international community.
Becky Johnson, a consultant with Catholic HIV/AIDS Network, said funding cuts for successful global programs threatened to rescind commitments made by U.N. member states. Faith-based organizations need long-term funding commitments to sustain their level of success.
Johnson said faith-based organizations already provide "up to 70 percent of health services in some African countries, especially in rural areas," and Catholic Church organizations are involved in comprehensive HIV response in 114 countries.
Budget cuts impacted organizations Johnson surveyed, she said, by limiting medicine, food and follow-up to clients already in treatment and preventing new patients from joining programs.
Johnson said there is a "65 percent treatment gap," with millions of infected people not receiving care and support.
Msgr. Robert J. Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis special adviser on HIV/AIDS, said 800 children die each day from AIDS-related illnesses, and there are many obstacles to universal access for women and children.
He cited late or no diagnosis of HIV-infected children and poor access to the anti-retroviral treatment drugs. "Despite World Health Organization recommendations to test all infants with unknown HIV exposure and to start treatment for all HIV-infected infants under 12 months of age, access is still a grave problem in many parts of the world," Msgr. Vitillo said.
He said children with HIV often have multiple infections, including tuberculosis, and require many pills, but the medicines are not always available in pediatric doses, are difficult to swallow and sometimes have side effects.
Msgr. Vitillo said, "HIV testing and treatment is vital, but we can no longer maintain a 'silo' approach. We need integrated management of HIV, TB and other opportunistic infections. ... We also need to assure adequate nutrition and eliminate stigma and discrimination."
He said many churches were involved in tuberculosis treatment long before HIV was identified and more than 26 percent of HIV services around the world are sponsored by the Catholic Church.
Jane Galvao is the HIV/AIDS technical officer for UNITAID, an international organization dedicated to developing innovative funding for HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. She said UNITAID uses a tax on airline tickets in six countries and contributions from other countries and private foundations to leverage lower prices on AIDS drugs and develop fixed-dose combination drugs and child-friendly medicines.
Dominican Sister Alison Munro, director of the AIDS office for the Southern Africa Catholic Bishops' Conference, said her country has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of people in the world infected by HIV/AIDS and also the largest anti-retroviral treatment program.
Sister Munro said while South Africa has made huge strides, "universal access, from my perspective, remains a myth. It is not a reality."
She said it is hampered by cost, the provision and procurement of drugs, and societal, religious and cultural beliefs that prevent treatment.
"Two-thirds of the patients in treatment in South Africa are female. Men don't necessarily access programs at the same places as women. There is a stigma to treatment, a fear of being tested and knowing the results. There is a lack of confidentiality in small communities," Sister Munro said.
The dire conditions in which many people live in developing countries contribute to the problem, she said, as do insufficient health personnel in the public sector to meet the treatment demands.
Sister Munro said the relationship between the government and the Catholic Church in South Africa has improved over time.
She also said the church, in living out its Catholic social teaching, reaches out to people on the margins of society. In South Africa, that includes nontraditional families, such as polygamous groups, child-headed households and one-parent families.
Pacem Munyenymbe, a woman from Malawi, described living with AIDS. She said she bore witness that AIDS changes life, but "life is there when one has the benefit of treatment."
Munyenymbe said universal access is a hope and a reality, which has the potential for controlling infection, reducing the number of people with HIV and restoring dignity to women.
Finola Finnan, chair of the Catholic HIV/AIDS Network, said faith-based organizations should focus on human dignity and advocate for comprehensive support for people with HIV/AIDS, including psychosocial services, nutrition and promotion of gender equality.