Friday, August 3, 2012

On HIV/AIDS, religion, and public health

Over the years I have lost many to HIV/AIDS: family and friends. I can’t tell you how many, though. I stopped counting a while back. However, I can tell you that, because of the impact of HIV/AIDS on my life, I know what stigma is. I know what it is like to watch people sink into depression, lose hope and die because those who matter most to them have rejected them. 

HIV/AIDS as we have experienced it in the East African context has struck the family as a whole: men and women in their prime and young children have been the typical victims. Our AIDS story has had much to do with heterosexuality. So one can’t simply label HIV/ AIDS a “gay disease” as has tended to happen in the US. Our governments have had to address AIDS as a national crisis because it has stricken the mainstream.

In nations such as the US, where the tendency has been to associate the disease with sexual and ethnic minorities, I get the distinct sense that little mainstream urgency has been attached to the fight against AIDS. There are certainly men, women, and youth who have devoted their lives to fighting this apathy. But, unfortunately, there are also others who tend to view HIV/AIDS as a form of punishment for “breaking God’s laws” on sex and sexuality. Of course, this is not a uniquely American view. I have also encountered it among some people of faith in the East African context.

My interactions with those who have expressed these troubling views have led me to think about just how limited this particular religious approach to human problems is. I’m talking about a specific interpretation of the Christian teachings on sex and sexuality. The idea is that, if everybody limits themselves to following these teachings and only engages in sex within the context of heterosexual marriage then sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV/AIDS will cease to be a problem. In other words, the only way to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS is to be a “true” Christian.

That is all well and good, except that never in the history of humankind have all members of a given community adhered strictly to its religious teachings: A “true” Christian can get infected with HIV/AIDS even if he or she is firmly heterosexual, married, and faithful. For one, there is such a thing as a cheating spouse. Secondly, infection can be transmitted through rape. Yet another situation that facilitates the spread of infection is transfusion with infected blood and blood products. Yet another is the use of unsterilized medical equipment. The list goes on and on.

Those who persist in seeing HIV/AIDS as a form of divine punishment conveniently forget how closely interconnected we all are. As a result of these interconnections, HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. When you are exposed to the HIV virus, it does not ask whether you are “saved,” pray regularly, give alms to the poor, fast, or obey God’s law. If your defenses are weak, it penetrates them and infects your body whether you are rich or poor, young or old, “innocent” or not, devout or otherwise.

Keeping all of this in mind, how useful is it that a significant number of religious leaders have a simplistic approach to dealing with HIV/AIDS? How useful is it that they condemn it as a sinners’ disease, oppose the use of condoms under all circumstances, and oppose most forms of sex education? Simply put, their actions are not useful. In fact, to the extent that they influence public policy, they end up endangering everybody in the community.

Knowing this, I think that those of us living and working in communities stricken by HIV/AIDS should persist in emphasizing that it is treated by government and health organizations as a public health issue, not a moral issue. From a public health standpoint, we can speak about HIV/AIDS in its complexity. We can also talk about risks, prevention, and treatment. Importantly, we can make an effort to protect everybody.

What is the place of religion in all of this? Well, I honestly think people are entitled to believe whatever their religions teach them. However, I also think their beliefs should be directed towards governing their personal lives and setting moral standards for their religious communities. They should not be imposed on the broader national population as public health policy.

Further reading
"Education, honest dialogue key to halting spread of AIDS," by Chris Carlin and Debra Stanley, 1/17/07,
"HIV and AIDS stigma and discrimination," 
"Public health approach to combating HIV/AIDS,"
"HIV/AIDS stigma: an impediment to public health," by Ronald O. Valdiserri, MD, MPH, March 2002,

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

1 comment:

  1. HIV/AIDS has always been a pandemic disease especially in Africa. People have been judged harshly after being known as a carrier of the disease and have brought misconceptions about the illness. HIV/AIDS chooses no gender, age, religion, and sexuality. There are a lot more logical reasons behind having acquired the disease. One of which you have mentioned is the use of unsterilized medical equipment. It should already be customary for medical practitioners that any medical equipment to be used on every patient be either new or sterilized to avoid contamination. This is a basic preventive measure that must be mandated in all hospitals, clinics, and laboratories.

    Carmella Eaglin