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
By Megan Klingler
In 1976, along the Ebola River, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a rare and deadly virus was first identified. The Ebola virus, named for the river near its discovery, has since led to multiple outbreaks across several African countries, Europe and even the United States of America. The exact origin of the Ebola virus is unknown; however, it is believed to be an animal-borne disease and harbored in bats. The bats carrying the virus can then transmit to other animals like monkeys, deer and humans. After the transfer to a human, the Ebola virus can easily spread from person to person.
Ebola virus disease, or EVD, is typically spread by love, care and compassion for a sick person. Often healthcare workers, clergy and family members of those that are sick are at the highest risk of being infected. EVD is spread through contact with infected bodily fluids or through contact with objects that are contaminated with infected body fluids. It can be spread from a person who is sick with EVD, from the corpse of a person that died of EVD, contact with an animal with EVD or from breast milk or unprotected sexual contact with a recent EVD survivor.
A public health emergency
On August 1, 2018, the DRC announced a cluster of Ebola cases discovered in the North Kivu province in the East Congo Episcopal Area, marking DRC’s tenth Ebola outbreak since 1976. Unlike previous Ebola outbreaks in the DRC that were contained to remote areas, the spread to urban centers and the increased mobility of people caused this outbreak to easily spread.
On July 17, 2019, almost one full year later, Ebola reached Goma, a busy DRC border city with an estimated two million people and an international airport. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced this outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern.” The outbreak was not only a threat to the neighboring countries, but to the world, and had grown to be the world’s second largest Ebola epidemic on record with more than 2,400 cases.
Shortly after the WHO announcement, Bishop Unda of the East Congo Episcopal Area requested assistance from the General Board of Global Ministries. Within 24 hours, Dr. Damas Lushima, the East Congo Health Board coordinator, received a protocol from the Global Health unit on actions to reduce exposure to the Ebola virus developed by the WHO, the African Union, the Liberian government and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015. It also contained practical recommendations to screen, isolate and refer potential Ebola cases.
Megan Klingler, Global Ministries’ Global Health unit’s primary health care specialist, volunteered to offer technical assistance and support to the East Congo Health Board’s Ebola response. Klingler, a public health nurse, had previous experience as a team leader for Ebola responses in Nigeria and Sierra Leone and worked for the CDC as a course facilitator for U.S. healthcare workers going to Ebola zones.
Klingler’s trip objectives were to empower the East Congo Health Board’s members with the knowledge and expertise to disseminate information on Ebola prevention among UMC health facilities, communities and churches. The first training was conducted fully by Klingler and for subsequent trainings, the East Congo Health Board slowly took over the curriculum.
Trainings were held for members of the UMC healthcare staff, church clergy and lay leaders. The topics included “Ebola Signs and Symptoms,” “Ebola Myths and Facts,” “Screen, Isolate, Refer”, and “Infection, Prevention and Control.”
For 24 days, the team traveled throughout East Congo by road, boat and plane and worked all day from early morning to late night. Despite the many obstacles like bad roads, a cancelled flight, denied visas, and the car breaking down, the team stayed strong and determined to reach all sites and provide the training promised by Bishop Unda’s team.
The trainings were held in five cities: Goma, Beni, Bukavu, Uvari and Kisangani, and directly reached over 360 participants. The presentations were mostly interactive, with hands on exercises and case studies. Due to working with medical professionals and clergy, the topics were tailored to each attendee’s role and were presented in multiple languages to ensure full understanding. Pre-tests and post-tests were administered at most trainings. The average starting score was less than 30 percent and the average final score after training was at about 90 percent, demonstrating a large gain in knowledge.
The true number of beneficiaries of these trainings is unknown and expanding daily. At a church service in Goma that followed the Clergy and Lay Leaders training, the pastor used his leadership position to speak on the importance of proper hand hygiene and demonstrated how to wash your hands correctly to the congregation, encouraging all to follow him. The bishop’s wife and Maternal Neonatal Child Health Coordinator, Dr. Marie Claire, visited a UMC orphanage in Goma where the orphans were taught how to wash their hands. Examples of the tear down effect were demonstrated multiple times throughout the trip. And even when the team’s car got a flat tire, the Congolese soldiers that surrounded the car were taught about Ebola, the importance of hand hygiene and were encouraged to discuss myths they had heard about Ebola.
As of September 28, 2019, the DRC Ministry of Health reported a total of 3,188 Ebola cases, including 2,129 deaths. Although this is not positive news, there may soon be more relief. A second Ebola vaccine is coming to DRC. The outcome of the first Ebola vaccine has been very positive, but the quantities have been low. The hope is that with this new vaccine, more people can be reached.
Additionally, in early August before the trainings took place, two experimental treatments were found to be up to 90 percent effective in treating Ebola when used early in the sickness. This is an additional reason in why the UMC trainings were so important: the trainings not only demonstrated how to prevent contracting Ebola, but how to identify and educate the community to seek medical help in the face of emerging Ebola symptoms.
Next steps and moving forward
With the Bishop’s support and presence, the East Congo Health Board has conducted additional Ebola prevention trainings in Kindu following Klingler’s departure. This demonstrates the success of the trainings and determination of the East Congo Health Board and church leadership to spread the knowledge of prevention to their community in which they serve.
Megan Klingler is the Global Health unit’s primary health care specialist.