Christian fundamentalism and HIV seem both to be on the upswing in Uganda. I’ve remarked before that enthusiastic support for abstinence-only programmes has undermined previously successful HIV prevention efforts in the country. But now it seems over-zealous preachers are threatening the success of treatment efforts, too.
Robert Ochai, director of the trailblazing AIDS support organisation TASO, has noticed that some of group’s the 23,000 treatment clients are giving up their HIV drugs because they have been “cured” by faith healers, according to a report in The Monitor. Apparently, faith healing has become big business in Uganda.
“Several Pentecostal churches in the country, more so in Kampala, invite the sick, including those with Aids, for spiritual healing. Some churches promise miracles, sometimes in exchange for their patients’ valuables. The most publicised case is of Ms Frances Adroa who claimed last year that she was tricked by pastors of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God into offering her car to the church. She later sued the pastors after her condition deteriorated and they refused to return her car,” reports Kakaire Kirunda.
Eating in to family finances is bad enough. Deliberately encouraging people to give up life-prolonging therapy is far worse. But the effect on the epidemic as a whole could be catastrophic, too. If a person is on antiretrovirals, it is critical that they stay on them (or, to use the AIDS Inc. jargon, that their “compliance” is high). If they stop taking them for a bit, because they run out, forget, can’t be bothered, feel rotten or whatever, the amount of virus in their blood shoots up. That damages the immune system and makes it more likely that they’ll get sick, it increases the likelihood that the virus will mutate into drug-resistant forms, and it makes it much, much more likely that they’ll pass their infection on if they have unprotected sex.
Partly because of the extraordinary level of support provided by organisations like TASO, compliance among Ugandans on ARVs is very high. Undermining it in the name of God and Mamon is beyond cynical, it is downright wicked. In this regard, the “faith healers” are no better than witch doctors or traditional healers who sell expensive herbal cures for AIDS.
For an insight into the complicated relationship between traditional beliefs, modern medicine and faith, I urge you to read Johnny Steinberg’s book Sizwe’s Test, to be published soon in the UK under the less interesting title Three Letter Plague. He’s writing about South Africa rather than Uganda but he does so with depth of feeling and great humanity. It’s thought-provoking, and a lovely read.