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Faith-based organizations, volunteers vital to halt HIV spread: UN study
12 February 2007

Geneva, Switzerland: Faith-based organizations play a major role in HIV/AIDS care and treatment in sub-Saharan Africa and greater collaboration between them and public health agencies is needed if progress is to be made towards the goal of universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010, according to a new United Nations study.

“Faith-based organizations (FBOs) are a vital part of civil society,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Department of HIV/AIDS Director Kevin De Cock said. “Since they provide a substantial portion of care in developing countries, often reaching vulnerable populations living under adverse conditions, FBOs must be recognized as essential contributors towards universal access efforts.”

“WHO has done a great service in quantifying the role of the faith community in providing HIV/AIDS care and treatment in sub-Saharan Africa,” the Reverend Canon John L. Peterson, Director of the Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation at Washington Cathedral said.

“Pastors, imams, and volunteers who minister to those who are suffering from deadly diseases are fully aware of their constituents’ needs, and have responded with care on the front lines. This report provides great encouragement to the faith community to continue to expand its role and to work in close partnership with governments and NGOs (non-governmental organizations),” he added.

According to the report – Appreciating assets: mapping, understanding, translating and engaging religious health assets in Zambia and Lesotho ¬– FBOs play a much greater role in HIV/AIDS care and treatment in sub-Saharan Africa than previously recognized.

The report, released by WHO yesterday at the National Cathedral in Washington DC, concludes that greater coordination and better communication are urgently needed between organizations of different faiths and the private and public health sectors.

It estimates that between 30 and 70 per cent of the health infrastructure in Africa is currently owned by faith-based organizations, yet there is often little cooperation between them and mainstream public health programmes.

The study focused on Lesotho and Zambia, which had HIV prevalence rates of 23.2 and 17 per cent respectively in 2005. It found that Christian hospitals and health centres are providing about 40 per cent of HIV care and treatment services in Lesotho and almost a third in Zambia.

The pilot study was undertaken by partners in the African Religious Health Assets Programme (ARHAP) at the Universities of Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal, and Witwatersrand in South Africa, and researchers from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, United States.

It argues that health, religion and cultural norms and values define the health-seeking strategies of many Africans and the failure of health policy makers to understand the overarching influence of religion, and the important role of FBOs in HIV treatment and care, could seriously undermine efforts to scale up health services.

The report calls for greater dialogue and action between religious and public health leaders in expanding community workshops to engage more FBOs in community health work; extending health mapping to identify FBOs that could help in scaling up services; and further collaborative research.

“We have only scratched the surface of what is happening and it is already clear that there is so much more to learn,” WHO Department of HIV/AIDS Partnerships Officer Ted Karpf said. “Donors and health-care funders need to take the role of FBOs into account. Without the FBOs, the hope of universal access to prevention, treatment and care is lost.”