Blind Faith: The Impact Religion Can Have On HIV

Source: By Winnie Ssanyu Sseruma

When people face a traumatic event or experience in life they often seek solace in something they believe in; something that will offer potential solutions and fill the emotional and spiritual vacuum when everything else has failed. As you’d expect, many people living with HIV seek solace in their religious faith, and for some that becomes their whole life’s focus. However, religious faith and HIV continue to have a challenging relationship, to say the very least.

At the beginning of the HIV epidemic back in the Eighties, some faith leaders preached that only ‘sinners’ contracted the virus, advising that the only solution for those living with HIV was to pray hard for forgiveness. While many faith leaders have since realised that HIV is simply a virus that can affect anyone, unfortunately some haven’t. In fact, a few have gone even further, telling those in their congregations who are living with HIV to stop taking their Antiretroviral treatment (ARVs) and instead concentrate on praying because that’s the only way they will experience emotional and physical healing.

Whether praying to be healed from HIV is being preached in select churches, or some church-goers living with HIV are misinterpreting what their faith leaders are telling them, a number of HIV positive people have died as a result of stopping their HIV medication. What remains unclear is how many people are being converted to this way of thinking. Is this a big problem warranting a global intervention, or are we making a mountain out of a molehill? I personally don’t know the definitive answers to these questions, but what I can say is that where prayer and HIV healing are concerned, I have witnessed and have heard of some pretty bizarre behaviour among people living with HIV, particularly within African communities in the UK and in some parts of Africa.

ARV treatments save lives and many of us who are taking them now would not even be here today to tell the tale if we didn’t have access to them. We now have scientific evidence from recent trials to confirm that these drugs not only save lives but can also act as an effective barrier to HIV transmission. This is by no means new information for those living with HIV and or working in the HIV sector, but having sound evidence to back our experiences up is always a bonus.

Despite such compelling evidence, there are always some who, for one reason or another, continue to reject anti-HIV medication. I have had conversations with people who have told me that they’d originally tested HIV positive but miraculously no longer carry the virus as a result of prayer and rejection of ARV treatment. I have also heard of HIV positive people who have actually testified at their places of worship that they have been ‘cured of HIV through prayer’, as well as a small minority of faith leaders who somehow manage to convince their followers that taking ARVs will kill them outright. Some HIV positive people also visit witch doctors, sangomas, and/or traditional healers, and are predictably told that no trace of HIV exists in their blood, encouraging them to abandon their ARVs altogether. In fact, the discussion about witch doctors and HIV deserves a blog of its own!

Overall, I respect the fact that faith is very individual and private, and whatever people want to believe is entirely up to them. However, this can make it very difficult to monitor any negative impacts that religious faith might have on the lives of vulnerable populations targeted by those who wish to exploit them and extort what little money they have. How many people are targeted, I don’t think anyone knows, but I strongly feel that this is a worrying phenomenon that deserves much more attention, and possible interventions, if we are to continue to help save lives.

What I am very clear about is that ARV treatment and prayer should complement each other, not compete against each other. Above all else, the God I have faith in is a generous one and helps those who help themselves by taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them

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