By Kathy Griffith
The Abundant Health Initiative of The United Methodist Church supports mothers and children through teaching about pregnancy and child care, making improved services more accessible and available, and encouraging community participation. Confidence in this partnership leads to trust, empowerment and peace of mind. In communities from Nepal to Congo, where pregnant women’s and small children’s lives are at risk from everyday problems, let alone COVID-19, this connection is life-changing.
Finding local nutritious food
A partner in Nepal, the Nutrition Promotion and Consultancy Service, has implemented a childhood nutrition program in a difficult-to-reach mountainous area. They share practical information with the community through special events that bring women together to dance, sing, compete and learn about health. As a result, mothers are bringing their very small children for growth monitoring and nutritional assistance and breastfeeding their newborns longer, and supportive home visits are taking place. The field team gives food and cooking demonstrations to mothers’ groups in order to introduce local, affordable and nutritious variations into traditional recipes. After 12 months, most families are eating more balanced meals and community opinion leaders are discouraging the ever popular “junk food.”
Health services, healthy home
In rural Central Congo, women are taking advantage of the open doors of the health facility and ownership of new health knowledge. They understand the benefit of multiple prenatal visits, consent to tests, and request malaria-prevention medication and mosquito nets, which are no longer taboo. Services have been made more practical and helpful through mobile clinics and visits from Community Health Worker visits to screen children, village by village, for malnutrition. Kitchen and community gardens have been introduced, and some have had an opportunity to raise chickens. One of the most welcome interventions has been the drilling of two village wells. No more long walks for dirty water. Peace.
The health system in the autonomous region of Tashba Pri in Nicaragua relies heavily on community health workers. A partner, Accion Medica Cristiana (Christian Medical Action), works with community leaders and members to keep health data, particularly about pregnant women and children. They not only address health needs but also promote health through household water treatment, vegetable growing and the installation of smokeless stoves.
In Liberia, the nurse in charge of the clinic at Camphor assumed her post with very little midwifery experience. The community could easily have lost trust in the clinic’s capacity to provide care. Fortunately, the Abundant Health Initiative’s program officer began to mentor her. The nurse’s self-confidence grew, transforming her relationships with coworkers and patients. She became a better leader and manager. “I have learned to be patient and calm,” she said, and the work goes on. We celebrate her in the year of the nurse and midwife!
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has reduced attendance at many of these vital services. Health workers and community leaders continue to urge pregnant women and young children to seek treatment, deliver their babies at health facilities and breastfeed for as long as possible. They also teach and practice the new set of precautions that has come with the pandemic, not to spread panic, but to bring confidence and safety.
As knowledge, respect and autonomy increase through health partnerships in these countries and more around the world, we pray for continued peace of mind for mothers and children.
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Ending the AIDS pandemic is a collective responsibility. It is a life-saving ministry and movement in which the church plays a vital part. There are eight projects under the Abundant Health banner that have leading roles in reaching young people who are least aware, most at risk, and perhaps most afraid of stigma.
The United Methodist Church’s Health Board in Zambia joined local partners in Kitwe, and the rest of the world, to organize and commemorate World AIDS Day 2019 in December. It was themed “Communities making a difference, pressing toward ending AIDS.”
The celebration began with a candlelight service, helping participants remember people lost to AIDS and to have renewed hope for life. The district commissioner, Binwell Mpundu, gave an inspiring message. He said, “We are no longer a generation of anguish but a generation of hope. A hope that by 2030, Zambia will have zero new HIV infections.” He declared the goal attainable with collective action from all stakeholders.
The day was filled with activity for the people of Kitwe – aerobics, a march, a fun run and tug-of-war, but also with HIV education, counseling and testing, and condom distribution. Everyone was called upon to participate in the fight against AIDS; everyone can offer a hand to stop it. The general public was encouraged to go for testing, refer others for testing, take preventive measures and take antiretroviral medication consistently.
The church is part of the wider community. It can make a significant difference in this life-saving campaign. The health board actively works with the Zambian Ministry of Health and other organizations in the mining city of Kitwe to spread information to prevent HIV, improve access to testing and treatment, and to work against stigma. It recently trained 74 young people as Peer Educators. They are starting to reach out to their friends at school, college and university, establishing clubs and communicating through drama, song and radio, urging everyone to know their status and to treat each other with dignity. The health board is the only organization there reaching out to adolescents.
The Zambia UMC Health Board is part of a national campaign to pursue UNAIDS’ 90–90–90 target. The objective for this campaign is: 90% of people living with HIV know their HIV status, 90% of people who know their HIV-positive status access treatment and 90% of people on treatment have suppressed viral loads. In 2019, the health board launched the U=U campaign: The Undetectable virus is Untransmittable.
As the Zambia Health Board, we are proud of being part of this noble cause and making contributions to Zambia’s vision of ending new AIDS infections by 2030.
Betty Tshala, Health Office/Board Coordinator
Kathy Griffith is the program manager for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, Global Ministries. This article was adapted from a report by Betty Tshala, who serves as the Health Office/Board Coordinator, Zambia UMC Health Board, and as a UMC missionary with the Mujila Falls Project in Zambia.
World AIDS Day, Sunday, December 1, 2019
By Kathleen Griffith
World AIDS Day is on Sunday, December 1st this year, but for 37 million people around the world, living with HIV and AIDS is an everyday reality. Millions who don’t know their status are at risk of infection or spreading infection, which also affects the millions they support and nurture through family and community life. The United Nations theme for World AIDS Day 2019 is “Communities make the difference.” Let’s remember our brothers and sisters as we meet on this special Sunday, the first day of Advent, and let us form the community that makes a difference for people living with AIDS.
People of every age group are affected by HIV and AIDS but in many places, young people are disproportionately affected. The Abundant Health Initiative supports small projects that reach out to young people through communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Sierra Leone, the Philippines, Zambia, Zimbabwe and the United States. Students in high school and college, pregnant teens, young people who share needles, those experimenting with sex or sexual orientation, rich and poor populations, rural and urban populations – all have sacred worth but are affected by our stigma and judgement. In communities where Global Health works, our partners hear: “Stigma keeps many of us from being tested and treated.…Fear of rejection keeps us hidden…To lose our community is to lose our lives.”
Stigma shuts the door to HIV counseling and testing for many. Fear of the results and fear of leaked information keeps trust levels low. In the silence, myths grow and infection spreads.
PJ is 19 years old and lives with HIV. He feared being tested for HIV and put it off. When he understood he was positive, he didn’t know what to do or what he’d say to his mother and brother. Staff members of Mary Johnston Hospital (Manilla, Philippines) helped him find treatment but also to find hope. They taught him that, with treatment, there is a good chance to live a long, healthy life. His family would come to understand and accept him again. PJ became a Peer Educator and a teacher of HIV101 in his local community. “I know the hospital staff are instruments of God to spread love, knowledge and awareness so that, soon, stigma and discrimination will be gone.”
According to “The Lancet,” the Philippines is facing the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the western Pacific, with a 174% increase in HIV incidence between 2010 and 2017.
On World AIDS Day 2017, staff of Kissy UMC Hospital and UMC school children joined a march through their capital – Freetown, Sierra Leone – to promote awareness about rising rates of HIV cases, especially among young people. The turnout was high. HIV testing booths were positioned along the route. The city’s mayor encouraged people to embrace those living with HIV. “Stigma must stop”, he said. “When stigma is reduced, there will surely be a reduction of HIV transmission.”
According to the Sierra Leone UMC Conference Health Board Coordinator, knowledge about HIV and AIDS in Sierra Leone is limited. The government has expanded access to services, but uptake has been poor. People are reluctant to know their status when treatment and support are lacking, and they face discrimination and social marginalization.
Know and Go
Felister, a successful farmer and the mother of two HIV negative children in Malawi, is HIV positive. She and her husband were both positive when they married, but sadly, he abandoned her when their children were young. Though devastated, Felister started life all over again and has done very well. She is now rearing chickens and pigs. She also grows potatoes. She knows that being HIV-positive is not the end of life. Taking the medication properly is what makes her body strong. She attends clinic regularly and receives community support. Felister is determined to nurture her children and provide for them on her small farm in northern Malawi.
Felister’s community support for living with HIV included a Global Health and World Hope Corp partnership that raised awareness about HIV and the importance of getting tested, as well as Katete Hospital, where she receives her medications. One of the first steps for raising awareness in any community is to know what services are available and how to access them. Could your congregation become such a resource for someone in your community? Does your church have space to partner with a local clinic to provide an HIV “Know your status” event? Start with members of the congregation who are nurses, doctors, other health professionals or a parish nurse to explore possibilities with a local health clinic or hospital. See what develops.
Pray and Promote
Churches and communities can respond in many ways. Their leadership and advocacy keep people at the center. Pastors, church members, teachers, neighbors, peer educators, networks of people living with or affected by HIV – and you too – can make a difference through your prayers, welcome and love. People at risk for HIV infection may also experience mental health concerns and substance use disorder, leading to lowered inhibitions in relationships. Even loneliness and simply the need to be loved or connected with someone can lower inhibitions. Young people who have no place to stay may sometimes engage in risky sexual encounters in exchange for shelter and the cost of food.
Farai Danny Mhlanga is a Peer Educator at Africa University in Zimbabwe. In this role, he and his Peer Network have reached out to people of different cultures and traditions, people like themselves but also some who are marginalized with whom they wouldn’t normally associate. Together they’ve developed leadership and communication skills – like debate, dance, drama, music and public speaking – to engage young adults on this difficult subject. It has taught them to be the change Africa needs. It’s given them hope that this epidemic can be stopped.
FOR MORE INFORMATION Resources: United Methodist Global AIDS Committee ; CDC-HIV resources; UNAIDS; AVERT-Global info Information: UMC Abundant Health Giving: United Methodist Global AIDS Fund-Advance 982345