ZIMBABWE – Churches which claim they can ‘cure’ people of HIV are hindering the response to the virus in Zimbabwe, by encouraging people to stop taking antiretroviral medication.
Churches and faith-based organisations can play a vital role in the response to HIV. In many cases, they actively develop the will, knowledge, attitudes, values and skills required to prevent the spread of HIV.
Most churches emphasise the need to be faithful to one sexual partner and discourage pre-marital sex – which is one of the major causes of new infections among young people in Africa.
Stigma in churches
However, there are elements within religious groups which continue to fuel stigma and negatively affect responses to HIV.
Although great strides have been recorded in the fight against stigmatisation of people living with HIV, there are some church activities and teachings that negatively impact on the HIV response.
According to Dr Francis Machingura, a senior lecture at the University of Zimbabwe: “The status of people living with HIV and AIDS in Pentecostal churches is a sad story, when related to the negative attitude they get from their churches. Stigma against people [living with HIV] ranges from subtle to direct and usually manifests itself in the pastors’ sermons, healing altar calls and Bible study teachings.”
This is not unique to Zimbabwe. Writing about the Nigerian context, law professor Dr Olubayo Oluduro says: “The epidemic is interpreted by some religious groups as a punishment from God for sexual transgressions or as a divine curse for an immoral act.
“Viewing people living with HIV as ‘sinners’ or equating the epidemic with a ‘curse’ … greatly contributes towards to the stigma, discrimination, guilt and blame suffered by people living with HIV.”
Praying for a cure
One view is that HIV is regarded as a punishment from God for being promiscuous, an idea that is as ill-informed as it is wrong. There has also been a noticeable trend in which people living with HIV are considered spiritual captives, who can only be set free through prayers and fasting.
A growing number of Christian churches have been, over the years, encouraging people living with HIV to depend on prayers rather than pills.
And religious sects all over the world have claimed to cure HIV and AIDS, with some promising instant miracles in their services.
Pastor Ronald Matumo, who heads a local church in Harare, says it is possible that people are healed of all sicknesses through prayers and should therefore avoid taking pills.
“God can heal you instantly of AIDS but if you continue taking pills then you have no faith in him. When you take pills, then you tolerate the sickness,” he says.
But telling people to stop taking their anti-retroviral treatment (ART) once they start “praying to be healed” is dangerous.
Can you be cured of HIV?
Despite decades of research leading to a vast improvement in knowledge about HIV and AIDS, only one person has ever been proven to have been cured of the virus.
Timothy Ray Brown, also known as the Berlin Patient, remains the only person infected with HIV to be completely free of the virus.
Brown tested negative after being treated for leukaemia with a bone marrow transplant that came from a donor with a genetic mutation (known as CCR5) that makes cells immune to HIV infection.
Since a cure for HIV does not currently exist, Dr Timothy Moyo, a medical practitioner based in Harare, said it is important that HIV patients continue taking their medication despite what faith healers may say.
“Regardless of what your faith leaders tell you, you should not stop taking your medication,” he says. “It is possible that a test can produce false negative results due to one having an undetectable blood viral load.”
What is an undetectable viral load?
Viral load refers to the levels of the virus in the blood in HIV positive patients. Antiretroviral treatment reduces the viral load, in some cases to an undetectable level.
Ngonidzashe Chitakasha, a nutrition scientist in Zimbabwe, explains: “Having an undetectable virus does not mean that you are HIV negative, it only means that the viral load is below what a lab test can find.”
For instance, at times, the rapid HIV test result, of a person living with HIV and on antiretroviral treatment, can come back negative due to the fact that the HIV virus in the blood has been suppressed to an undetectable level.
“This becomes the major challenge with churches when they use the normal clinical tests to ascertain HIV status, as the results may be false,” says Chitakasha, “As convincing as some of these miracles may seem, people still need to stay on antiretrovirals to stay healthy.”
Having undetectable viral load drastically reduces the chance of transmitting the virus to someone else, however it does not completely eliminate it.
According to AIDS.gov: “Having an undetectable viral load greatly lowers your chance of transmitting the virus to your sexual and drug-using partners who are HIV-negative.
“However, even when your viral load is undetectable, HIV can still exist in semen, vaginal and rectal fluids, breast milk, and other parts of your body. For this reason, you should continue to take steps to prevent HIV transmission.”