CATHOLIC health care organizations and institutions will play a key role in implementing an ambitious plan to end the transmission of HIV to children, according to a study released 25 July at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, reports a news release from the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.
Building on last year's launch by UNAIDS of the Global Plan towards the Elimination of New Infections among Children by 2015 and Keeping their Mothers Alive, which focuses on the 22 countries with the highest rates of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, Catholic health workers say they are ready to cooperate.
According to researcher Becky Johnson, who carried out the study for the Catholic HIV and AIDS Network (CHAN), the survey included 40 Catholic programs in India and 21 African countries.
While 95 percent of the programs were involved in the national AIDS programs within their respective country, and follow national guidelines for treating the virus, only 17 percent had been previously involved in planning or implementing the Global Plan, notes the release.
According to Finola Finnan, chair of the Catholic HIV and AIDS Network, Catholic groups have long advocated for children affected by HIV, for example pressuring pharmaceutical companies to provide antiretroviral dosages that are appropriate for children.
The new report, she says, shows the programs are involved in HIV work and willing to make the Global Plan a success.
The key to preventing mother-to-child transmission of the virus is adequate testing of women, and use of antiretroviral drugs, especially by pregnant women. Such treatment lowers the HIV viral load, greatly reducing the chance that a woman will pass on the virus in the womb or during birth or breast feeding.
Catholic agencies face several challenges in implementing the program, however.
The survey found a need for resources beyond just what is needed for testing and treatment. Johnson said many of the 40 agencies she surveyed reported they needed funding to help women travel to testing and treatment. Nutritional support was also identified as a critical need.
Men were also identified as a critical part of making the Global Plan work.
According to Monsignor Robert J. Vitillo, special advisor on HIV and AIDS for Caritas Internationalis, getting the men to come in for testing often requires creative programming.
He cited programs in Zambia and Kenya supported by Catholic Relief Services where a woman who comes alone to her first clinic visit is encouraged to write a "love letter" to her husband, inviting him to come along on the next visit.
"Sometimes direct communication between husband and wife isn't present or effective, so it takes a little encouragement for the men to be convinced that it isn't just women's business," said Vitillo, one of four civil society representatives on the 15-member steering committee for the Global Plan. "In programs a woman who brings her husband with her is given a priority place in the waiting line. The man benefits from this as well. He may get a cooked meal because his wife didn't have to spend all day going to the clinic."
Pacem Mnyenyembe, an HIV-positive activist with the Community of Sant' Egidio's DREAM Project in Malawi, said that reducing mother-to-child transmission "is the only way to control the infection and reduce the number of HIV-positive people."
As effective as it has proved to be, Mnyenyembe said treatment alone wasn't enough. "People living with HIV need care, support and friendship. If friendship isn't there we cannot stand in the community," she said.
Faith-based organizations are key to responding to the wide variety of challenges that HIV presents, Mnyenyembe said.
"Faith leaders in our communities are doing a good job in an environment where stigma and discrimination are very high. They are the people who are healing our broken wounds.
Without them, AIDS would be an even more difficult thing," she said. "When someone is HIV-positive all you can think about is that you're forgotten. You think God has forgotten you.
You ask, 'Why me?' But these people bring us hope when we're desperate. When we think that the world is ending, they are there with good news for us. They break through the isolation produced by stigma and discrimination and give us hope."
Photo : International Aids Day. Photo courtesy of Stock Xchng