GENEVA - Faith-based organizations play a key role in the fight against HIV and AIDS and the stigma that goes with it.
So on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, the World Council of Churches started a campaign to encourage religious leaders to get tested for HIV in hopes of inspiring others across the world to seek testing, too.
Increasing the number of people receiving HIV testing is vitally important in the effort to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030 say those at the forefront in confronting the disease, which unchecked can be lethal.
UNAIDS, the United Nations program on HIV/AIDS says that 36.7 million people globally were living with HIV at the end of 2015 and 2.1 million people became newly infected with HIV at the end of that year.
By the end of 2015 it was estimated that 1.1 million people had died from people died from AIDS-related illnesses.
More worryingly less than half of people living with HIV know their HIV status, according to UNAIDS.
Some don't know the facts about HIV transmission or treatment; others don't have access to the test.
"To end HIV and AIDS, we have to overcome the stigma of HIV testing," said Francesca Merico, HIV campaign coordinator for the WCC-Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance.
"By getting tested for HIV, you aren't making a statement about morality — you're taking care of your health."
The WCC noted that many people are afraid of the stigma they may encounter just by getting tested.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
This is a stigma the World Council of Churches is hoping to lift with the campaign "Leading by Example: Religious Leaders and HIV Testing."
The campaign began Dec. 1 with a morning prayer service at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland.
As of June 2016, 18.2 million people, less than half of people living with HIV, were receiving treatment, according to UNAIDS.
At the Ecumenical Centre, the WCC invited the community to visit an exhibit of banners depicting religious leaders who are promoting HIV testing by getting tested themselves.
The World Health Organization offered a demonstration of an HIV self-test, and self-test kits will be available for free.
"Together, we will lift the stigma in a spirit of unity, acceptance and caring - for ourselves and for each other," said Merico.
Rev. Nyambura Njoroge, coordinator of the WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy said, ""When I go to see my doctor I get tested for high blood pressure, diabetes, and many other things. So why should I not be tested for HIV?"
"Faith leaders have a lot of influence in the community. We are leaders. I am hoping that many religious leaders will go for testing, and that people in the congregations will also follow," she asserts.
Worldwide, churches, communities, families, and individuals can join the effort by accessing an online order of service and by making a commitment to get tested.
Materials from the WCC-EAA are designed for religious leaders and others to use in sermons or in other forums to share accurate information about HIV testing.
"Set aside an HIV testing Sunday each month, or an HIV testing week or month each year," suggested Merico. "Share your efforts with the media. Tweet about the importance of HIV testing using #KnowYourStatus. Instagram your faith leader supporting HIV testing."
Speakers at the campaign launch included, Pradeep Kakkattil, director, UNAIDS Executive office; Dr. Rachel Baggaley, WHO coordinator, HIV Prevention and Testing and Dr. Mwai Makoka, WCC program executive, Health and Healing.
Among those who declared their support for the campaign were Geneva-based Globethics executive director Rev. Obiora Ike, a Nigerian, and Globethics Swiss founder and president, Professor Christoph Stückelberger.
In his World Aids Day Message for Dec. 1 U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that 35 years since the emergence of AIDS, the international community can look back with some pride.
"But we must also look ahead with resolve and commitment to reach our goal of ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030," said Ban noting that there has been real progress in tackling the disease.
"More people than ever are on treatment. Since 2010, the number of children infected through mother-to-child transmission has dropped by half. Fewer people die of AIDS-related causes each year. And people living with HIV are living longer lives," said the U.N. chief.
He noted that the number of people with access to life-saving medicines has doubled over the past five years, now topping 18 million.
But said Ban, "While there is clear progress, gains remain fragile. Young women are especially vulnerable in countries with high HIV prevalence, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.
"Key populations continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV. New infections are on the rise among people who inject drugs as well gay men and other men who have sex with men.
"The AIDS epidemic is increasing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, fueled by stigma, discrimination and punitive laws. Globally, people who are economically disadvantaged lack access to services and care."
Ban said criminalization and discrimination foster new infections each day with women and girls are still especially hard hit.