A study released by the Geneva-based World Health Organization has noted the key role of faith-based organizations in HIV prevention and care, but says greater collaboration is needed between them and public health agencies - writes Peter Kenny from Geneva for Ecumenical News International (ENI).
Such cooperation will be necessary, the WHO said on 8 February 2007, if progress is to be made towards the goal of universal access towards HIV prevention, treatment, care and support by 2010.
The report, 'Appreciating Assets: Mapping, Understanding, Translating and Engaging Religious Health Assets in Zambia and Lesotho', was released at Washington National Cathedral in the United States, and made available in Geneva (www.who.int/hiv).
"Faith-based organizations are a vital part of civil society", said Dr Kevin De Cock, director of the HIV/AIDS department at the WHO. "Since they provide a substantial proportion of care in developing countries, often reaching vulnerable populations living under adverse conditions, FBOs must be recognised as essential contributors towards universal access efforts."
The report by the United Nations agency estimates that between 30 per cent 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, which has an HIV prevalence rate of 23.2 per cent and Zambia, with a rate of 17 per cent, 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 of the HIV/AIDS treatment facilities in Zambia are run by faith-based organizations.
Earlier in the week, Linda Hartke, coordinator of the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, had said that more than 70 per cent of the world's population define themselves as people of faith, and faith-based organizations are involved in more than a quarter of global care and treatment projects on HIV and AIDS.
"The presence of religious groups in virtually every community, the involvement of faith-based organizations in over a quarter of the existing care and treatment projects world-wide on HIV and AIDS, and the fact that 70 per cent of the world's population identify themselves as people of faith means that the more religious beliefs, structures and current responses ... are understood, the more we can build on strengths and overcome obstacles for a collaborative response to the pandemic," said Hartke.
According to the WHO report, faith-based groups play a much greater role in HIV/AIDS care and treatment in sub-Saharan Africa than previously recognised.
The pilot study was undertaken by partners in the African Religious Health Assets Programme 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 in the United States.
"The findings are trustworthy because they are validated by those who are experiencing the services first hand," said Gary Gunderson, the director of the interfaith health programme at Emory University. "The alignment of religious health assets with public systems through participatory techniques opens a basic pathway towards health that should apply widely across cultures."
The researchers argue that health, religion and cultural norms and values define the health-seeking strategies of many Africans. They say the failure of health policy makers to understand the overarching influence of religion - and the important role of faith-based organizations in HIV treatment and care - could seriously undermine efforts to scale up health services.
"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," said the Rev John L. Peterson, who directs the Center for Global Justice and Reconciliation at Washington Cathedral.
He continued: "Pastors, imams, and volunteers who minister to those who are suffering from deadly diseases are fully aware of the needs of their constituents, 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."
[With grateful acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches]