Participants in the 20th International AIDS Conference, held in Australia in July, expressed concerns about the uptick in anti-gay legislation around the globe, as well as cuts to faith-based healthcare providers. Both factors exacerbate existing problems created by declining public interest in and funding for HIV/AIDS issues.
Addressing 18,000 delegates at the closing session in Melbourne, Australia, president-elect of the International AIDS Society, Dr. Chris Beyrer, criticized laws targeting LGBT communities saying these “are setting us back toward exclusion: limiting rights, reducing health care access and aiding and abetting the virus.” He specifically named Russia, Nigeria, Uganda, and India as places where discrimination is harming prevention and treatment efforts.
Deborah Birx, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator, spoke about the dual impact religion can have when dealing with HIV/AIDS. Highlighting the positive effects, she called faith-based efforts the “heartbeat of the response to HIV” and continued:
” ‘Many of us in the United States can remember the early scenes from St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City in the 1980s of desperate and dying young men being cared for by extraordinary and compassionate medical professionals and tireless nuns, when we didn’t know how to treat or what to do…What began as an awkward relationship between the gay community and the Catholic health care system became a story of acceptance, partnership, compassion and service that became a model for communities around the country and around the world.’…
“She said faith-based groups today provide 30-60 percent of the health care in countries where the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief operates, and much of that work is carried out by Catholics.”
Birx, however, warned conference attendees that stigma and discrimination against LGBT people, too often sanctioned or even promoted by religious leaders, could deeply set back the realistic goal of controlling AIDS. According to the National Catholic Reporter, the U.S. official challenged faith organizations saying:
” ‘[I]t is imperative that faith-based communities engage in renouncing and reducing the stigma and discrimination, hatred and violence that hamper our ability to reach and care for those in the society that are disenfranchised.’ “
Msgr. Robert Vitillo, longtime HIV/AIDS adviser to Caritas International, commented on the anti-gay laws:
“At face value, the legislation in some countries is supposedly to protect marriage between a man and a woman, or to prevent a more open concept of marriage which many northern countries seem to be legislating now. But many times legislation like this causes more discrimination, even violence, against sexual minorities…Yet many religious leaders do speak out against violence and discrimination.’ ”
“He said while the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not condone homosexual behavior, ‘in no way would the Catholic church condone violence or discrimination against anyone.’ “
Vitillo added that cuts in international assistance are a concurrent threat, and they are based upon false understandings about economic development in nations once considered impoverished. Vitillo explained, in a separate piece in the National Catholic Reporter:
” ‘It’s true that a small number of people are getting richer and richer, and the country’s GNP may have risen into the middle-income category, but the situation of the poor is often worse. And some governments claim they can handle all of their own health care, but they really can’t, and what they do provide they tend to concentrate in the large cities. As a result, the churches that have been providing care in rural areas have less access to funding today.’ “
Funding cuts and a shift away from faith-based providers are part of the fallout from decreased awareness and attention to HIV/AIDS issues in the international community. Maryknoll Fr. Rick Bauer, head of the Catholic HIV and AIDS Network, said of this emerging dynamic:
” ‘AIDS is not a designer charity anymore…And this comes just as we’re starting to believe we might end the pandemic as a global health emergency by 2030…To achieve that, however, we’ve got to get more people on treatment and get their viral loads down. Such treatment is the best prevention, but it’s going to be hard to do if we can’t keep attention focused on the challenge and if we can’t have access to the necessary funding.’ “
Bauer cited his own situation in Namibia, where funding through the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has dropped from $100 million to $40 million annually has caused treatment center closings and a lack of adequate research. He said Catholic efforts to prevent and combat HIV/AIDS treat the whole person–medical, social, emotional, spiritual–and have greater success than simply medical solutions, favored by secular programs. In summary, Bauer told the National Catholic Reporter:
” ‘We now have the science to suppress the virus living in our sisters and brothers living with HIV. We now have the data that say if you get sufficient viral load suppression your life expectancy is the exactly the same as someone who is HIV-negative. Now we need the political will, the social mobilization, the church mobilization, to accompany our brothers and sisters to get the compliance and the viral load suppression that will ultimately make AIDS a manageable health issue.’ “
Still, Msgr. Vitillo expressed hope when leaving the conference:
“[T]here is more collaboration among the scientists than I’ve seen before, and more cooperation across disciplines, all of which gives hope for new discoveries’…
“Using benchmarks that experts have dubbed the 90-90-90 strategy, the new global assault on AIDS aims to expand testing so that 90 percent of HIV-infected individuals are aware of their status. Of that population, 90 percent will receive regular treatment with antiretroviral drugs. And 90 percent of those receiving that treatment will achieve sufficiently suppressed levels of the virus in their bodies that they will be unlikely to transmit it to others.”
This, according to Msgr. Vitillo, is a “step forward” in recognizing that treatment is really prevention and will help the AIDS pandemic become “a more or less managable chronic disease by 2030.”
Catholics and people of faith worldwide have joined the #PopeSpeakOut campaign, asking Pope Francis to condemn anti-gay legislation as inconsistent with Catholic teaching. These laws clearly increase discrimination and violence against people who are LGBT, and now it is clear they also harm the church’s longstanding commitment to end HIV/AIDS. To add your voice to #PopeSpeakOut, click here.
For AIDS-related posts on Bondings 2.0, see some of the related articles below or click here for full coverage.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry
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