Religion and HIV/AIDS – how lives are being lost and saved

By Tessa Kendall, Senior Campaigns Officer

The BBC has reported that at least three people in London with HIV/AIDS have died after they stopped taking life-saving drugs because their Evangelical Christian pastors told them that God would heal them.

However, the image portrayed in the media of religious leaders effectively sentencing people to death is not the whole story. Before calling for faith and healthcare to be completely separated, it is important to consider both the harmful effect of belief and how it can help. In some cases, pastors are the best people to deliver the information people need.

Prof Jane Anderson, director of the Centre for the Study of Sexual Health and HIV in Hackney said: “We see patients quite often who will come having expressed the belief that if they pray frequently enough, their HIV will somehow be cured. We have seen people who choose not to take the tablets at all, so sometimes die.”

These healing claims are often made in African churches. HIV prevention charity African Health Policy Network (AHPN) says a growing number of London churches have been telling people that the power of prayer will “cure” their infections. Francis Kaikumba, chief executive of AHPN, said a family member committed suicide last year after being convinced by a church he did not suffer from a mental health problem.

AHPN cited the Nigerian Synagogue Church Of All Nations (SCOAN), which has its UK HQ inLondon. HIV/AIDS healing is listed on its website, along with cancer healing and baby miracles.

Ugandan freethinker James Onen is currently in the UK giving talks about his battle against superstition in his country. One of the problems he encounters is people not taking their medications because they are told by their pastors that God will cure them.

Although many African churches make claims for healing, they are not the only ones. The Universal Church of the Kingdomof God has also made claims for healing. This is the Church, founded in Brazil, whose UK headquarters are in the former Rainbow Theatre at FinsburyPark, north London. Some of their adverts for cures have been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority, as you can read here. It came to prominence over the murdered baby Victoria Climbie case where a pastor at the Church is reported by the BBC to have said, a week before her death, that “the eight-year-old told him Satan had told her to burn herself.”

However, there are initiatives where faith leaders work alongside clinicians. Alastair Duncan, Principal Dietician at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital said:

“There are some great initiatives in the UK and in Africa where pastors and traditional healers are educated about the realities of HIV, particularly around the fact that antiretrovirals can completely suppress HIV replication allowing the immune system to fully recover. These pastors and healers then go on to encourage people to come forward for testing and treatment. We have had a couple of these patients at my clinic who were in the early stages of life-threatening HIV-related conditions, and have been caught in time to be treated completely as a result.

“There is no reason why religion or traditional healing methods should prevent treating HIV with antiretrovirals. In Africa, for example, traditional healers are educated around which herbal medicines stop antiretrovirals working so that both approaches can be used safely together.”

On the other hand, he said that “pastors advising people not to take life-saving treatment” (often those newly diagnosed with HIV and overwhelmed both emotionally and physically, “could be leaving themselves open to prosecution under legislation protecting vulnerable adults.”