Top UN health official tells churches they are vital in fight against AIDS

(Photo: Paul Jeffrey / WCC)Protesters demand better treatment for caregivers at the July 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa.

Christians were among those engaging with scientific groups at the 21 International AIDS Conference, in South Africa focusing on issues ranging from vaccine trials to testing a vaginal ring that appears to dramatically lower the risk of HIV infection in women.

Held every two years, the 2016 Conference drew thousands of scientists, public-policy professionals, people living with the HIV virus and activists to the coastal city of Durban, for the five-day gathering under the theme "Access Equity Rights Now."

From the first day, it was clear that science is only part of the solution, because AIDS is more than a simple virus, the World Council of Churches reports.

At the opening, South African actress Charlize Theron declared, "AIDS does not discriminate on its own. It has no biological preference for black bodies, for women's bodies, for gay bodies, for youth or for the poor.

"It doesn't single out the vulnerable, the oppressed, or the abused. We single out the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the abused. We ignore them. We let them suffer. And then, we leave them to die."


Faith leaders from around the world met before and during the conference to consider their own role in fighting the epidemic and they were repeatedly praised for the work they've done and then challenged to do more.

In an interfaith gathering on the eve of the conference organized by the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (WCC-EAA), a top United Nations official told the religious community that despite fewer people dying every year from AIDS, the wily virus refuses to go away.

"At the same time we are saving more lives than ever, the AIDS epidemic is coming back, it is rebounding and reemerging everywhere.

"The difference now to what we saw in the past is that the epidemic is much more selective, it's affecting the ones you faith leaders care most about, the ones left behind, the last and the least in your societies.

"This is the modern shape of the AIDS epidemic," said Luiz Loures, the deputy executive director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and U.N. assistant secretary-general.

Loures said the medical and scientific communities need to go beyond traditional approaches as they respond to the new challenges, and faith communities must play a central role.

"It's not just medicines and what happens in clinical wards and health centers that will solve this crisis.

"At the end it's about how we approach people, about ethics, about what brings us together to work for better societies, societies that our children will be proud to live in," he said.

Loures said the churches' focus on community-based health care usually works "faster and cheaper" than other responses to AIDS,

He praised the closeness of faith communities to affected populations.

Loures noted that the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa proved the churches' ability to respond quickly.

"Readiness is a new concept. Children who need treatment can't wait. They'll die first if we don't take action.

"Readiness is related to proximity to people, and during the Ebola crisis the churches' health workers were on the front lines and paid a high price for taking risks," he said.

"Don't be humble. What you have done, the places you have worked, the ones you have lost, you should be proud of all this. Come with us and take the central role you should occupy in our response to AIDS," Loures said.

"We need your experience and your approach to move us forward."

Copyright © 2015 Ecumenical News