New Churches Damage Fight Against HIV in Liberia – Govt Official

An upsurge in ‘new generation’ churches that claim to be able to heal or perform miracles is having a damaging effect on Liberia’s progress in fighting HIV/AIDS, a government official said today.

Speaking in the week before World AIDS Day, Health Ministry official David Logan said there had been a dramatic increase in new generation churches that link their preaching to prevailing local beliefs in healing or miracle cures, with the result that people with HIV were not seeking proper medical treatment.

“Unlike traditional Catholic, Lutheran or Episcopalian churches, the new churches claim to be able to give spiritual deliverance, provide healing or perform miracles.

This is an attractive option for many people living in an impoverished, post-conflict Liberia,” Logan told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Monrovia.

“Transport and opportunity costs as well as the stigma associated with coming out with HIV has meant that patients from outlying communities are more likely to seek help in these nearby local new churches rather than medical centres based in the capital,” Logan said.

Liberia, a West African country still recovering from almost 15 years of civil war, has around 18,000 people who need anti-retroviral therapy (ART), the standard medical treatment for those living with HIV.

Only 6,000 people are currently enrolled in therapeutic programmes, and a further 10,000 are “in care” because they do not qualify for treatment under WHO guidelines, which stipulate that the patient must have a CD4 count of 350, or be at clinical stage 3 or 4, Logan said.

Most healthy adults have between 500/mm3 and 1,000/mm3 CD4 cells, which form part of the immune system, designed to fend off disease when the body is fighting infection.

A One Campaign report released today shows that Liberia is the only non-conflict country in sub-Saharan Africa in which progress towards the “tipping point” in the battle against HIV has been reversed. Mali is the only other country where the battle against HIV is being lost.

“The tipping point is the point where the number of people being treated exceeds the number of new infections. Liberia treated many more people in 2012 than it has in 2013, resulting in negative progress,” Erin Hohlfelder, the report author, told Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Washington.

“We’re hoping it is just a blip, rather than the beginning of a new trend,” Hohlfelder said, adding that funding from traditional bilateral donors has been static over the last two years, leaving many African countries to fill the gap from their own budgets.

Logan said he hoped that funding provided by the Global Fund and the ESTHER Project would help to pay for outreach workers to reach isolated communities and ensure ART retention and follow-up, and that international days like World AIDS Day would help persuade local communities not to stigmatise those living with HIV.

New WHO guidelines released this year will increase the number of people eligible for treatment for HIV by raising the CD4 threshold for starting treatment to a count of 500/mm3, Logan said.

“The national programme is now working closely with these new churches so that they direct known HIV cases to our designated centres for medical care while they provide spiritual support,” he said.

Source: All Africa