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home : opinion : perspectives

1/19/2012 10:00:00 AM
Prayer, advocacy and AIDS

I was privileged last month to spend some time with hospice colleagues in Zimbabwe. I lived with a Zimbabwean Roman Catholic family, the Chifambas.

Dickson and Noti Chifamba are physicians. One is an anesthesiologist and one is director of Island Hospice - Africa's first hospice and a partner of our local hospice, The Community Hospice.

The Chifambas have two adult children studying and working abroad, Stewart and Rudo, and two younger children still at home, Mandy and Tafara.

I attended Mass with the family at St. Gerard's Church in Harare, a large congregation headed by Redemptorist priests.

I also attended their weekly neighborhood meeting - held, the week I was there, at the Chifambas' home. At these weekly meetings, parishioners get together to read Scripture, discuss current events, organize locally and pray together.

These lively groups seem to be the emerging backbone of parish life. They even may take a lead role in planning Sunday liturgies in the near future.

I was most impressed with their outreach, particularly to the homeless and to AIDS orphans. Dr. Dickson Chifamba volunteers his time at a parish clinic on Saturday mornings.

Zimbabwe remains an epicenter country for the AIDS pandemic. It now has more than 1.2 million AIDS orphans, but only limited access to anti-retroviral medications to treat AIDS. These life-saving medications are routinely available in many parts of the world - but not in sub-Saharan Africa, where 70 percent of the 1.8 million AIDS deaths occurred last year.

Yes, nearly 5,000 people on our planet died on average each day last year from HIV/AIDS. My visit coincided with World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) and several related news items, including the updated epidemiological report from UNAIDS showing disease prevalence and infection rates across the world.

The report reaffirmed the global nature of the AIDS pandemic. No country is immune: Here in the United States, there were more than 50,000 new infections in the past year, and more than 20,000 deaths.

Even in the midst of abundant medication and treatment availability, there are at-risk populations here at home, and deaths occurring more frequently than one would imagine. For this reason, the United Nations last June published an urgent new resolution about HIV/AIDS: A/Res/ 65/277. (Read more about it, along with the latest research and data, at www.unaids.org">www.unaids.org.)

One particular term in the resolution, TERM 7, talks about the relationship between HIV/ AIDS and poverty in all countries. It reminds me specifically that the Gospels summon us to take special care of the poor; this is often referred to as a "preferential option for the poor."

In most countries of the world, including ours, HIV/AIDS is both a consequence and a cause of poverty. Hence, our work at St. Gerard's in Harare, Zimbabwe or in the U.S. is to respond as Jesus would to the individuals who are diseased and poor, as well as to the root causes of that disease and poverty.

It was with sadness, therefore, that we also heard on World AIDS Day that the Global Fund for AIDS, Malaria and TB (tuberculosis) would be unable to provide any assistance for the next few years - apparently, due to the global economic downturn.

The Global Fund has been a major provider of AIDS treatments in many countries. Their announcement is a death sentence for millions of people living with HIV/AIDS, including a huge number of children.

In Zimbabwe, less than half of those who have AIDS have access to anti-retroviral medications, and now that number is sure to worsen.

The significant global downturn in access to life-saving medications - with heightened impact on the poor - merits the urgent attention of well-meaning people of all faiths, and especially Christians, who follow the Gospel mandate of Jesus.

Our mindfulness of this issue should inform our daily prayer lives and our social action and service. It also should spur us to active political advocacy for local, national and international policies that support poverty alleviation and universal access to treatment and care for persons in our world living with HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses.

(Mr. Di Sorbo, former executive director of The Community Hospice in the Albany Diocese, is international technical advisor for the Africa Hospice Initiative. Learn more at www.africahospiceinitiative.org.)

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