Halleluliah! (not). Faith healing could spread HIV

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.

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This post was published on 02/10/08 in Ideology and HIV, Money and AIDS.

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  1. Comment by Roger, 02/10/08, 10:38:

    Are you sure the two books are the same? The number of pages is quite different… 368 vs 240… though the story seems very similar.

  2. Comment by Chris Green, 03/10/08, 06:48:

    ‘…to use the AIDS Inc. jargon, that their “compliance” is high’

    No, Eli, the correct jargon (if that is the right word) is “adherence”. “Compliance” suggests enforcement, as in the original concept of Directly Observed Therapy (DOTS) for TB, where pills were physically popped into the mouths of patients to ensure that they were taken. This active approach may be appropriate for six month’s therapy, but would be impossible to assure for a lifetime.

    “Adherence” implies a personal discipline. People are encouraged to understand why they must take the right pills in the right way at the right time. They take them because they want to, not because they are told to.

    This approach has been remarkably effective in the developing world. Many friends in Indonesia are 99.99% adherent after more then three years on therapy. One says that her pill-taking has become like ‘wajib sholat (the Muslim requirement to pray)’, and she feels that something is missing if she is even a few minutes late.


  3. Comment by elizabeth, 05/10/08, 09:31:

    Chris: I stand corrected; thanks for the comment on adherence rates, too. To those of us who are sloppy even about finishing a course of antibiotics, this discipline is remarkable and admirable.

    Roger: I’ve got both versions and yes they’re the same. Amazing how books shrink in paperback.

  4. Comment by Kate J, 07/10/08, 05:59:

    A year ago I was in Ethiopia doing research on micro-economic development projects and HIV/AIDS and was overwhelmed at the number of theses from Addis Ababa University that were focused on the potential for holy water to cure AIDS…

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