ST JOHN’S, Antigua – Churches in Antigua & Barbuda are being urged to get on board with the fight against HIV and AIDS.
A major seminar held under the theme “The role of the church in the HIV response” on Monday brought together church leaders and other stakeholders in the fight against the deadly virus.
Regional HIV prevention specialist Sarah Godfree said the church’s role is very important in the fight.
“As many as 91 per cent in the recent (2001) census would say they were affiliated to one of the Christian faiths, so as an HIV organisation focused on prevention, we find it critical that we engage the church and look for common ground as to where the public HIV response can be better leveraged,” said Godfree.
“The HIV response is not asking the church to change its biblical views or theological teachings in regards to such issues as homosexuality. All is being asked of the church though, is the church looks more towards embracing and accepting people for who they are,” she added.
Catholic Bishop Kenneth Richards, who delivered a keynote address at the seminar, recognised there is more the church can do, but said a change of message away from abstinence is not needed.
“The difficulty is not that the message proclaimed by the church does not contain the solution to the problems at hand. But rather that of a seeming lack of ability to convince persons to take seriously and act on the prescription recommended through our proclamation,” said Bishop Richards.
“The church suffers from a credibility problem, in the sense that its own members disregard what the church proposes and teaches,” he added.
The National Strategic Plan (NSP for HIV/AIDs in Antigua & Barbuda 2012 – 2016), acknowledges abstinence as a solution, but suggests promoting abstinence will not have the desired impact on transmission rates.
But the bishop said the church would stick to its approach of promoting abstinence.
“The church cannot be satisfied with supporting a programme aimed at behaviour change that concentrates on condom use and faithfulness to one sexual partner,” said Richards.
“The focus of such programme is geared at managing fallout of irresponsible and dangerous sexual behaviour,” he added.
Bishop Richards said abstinence must be central to any church supported campaign.
“The proposal, therefore … is if there is serious commitment for attaining zero rate in HIV/AIDS transmission, then the value of sexual abstinence and sexual responsibility based on Gospel values must become central to a church sponsored campaign.”
The NSP found that from 1985 to 2011 a cumulative total of 906 persons were diagnosed as HIV positive in Antigua & Barbuda with 175 persons living with AIDS. There has been an average of 52 new HIV infections annually from 2008 – 2010.
Persons identified as high risk of infection were those involved with multiple sex partners (33 per cent), homosexuals (22 per cent) and prostitutes (16 per cent).
The seminar was held as part of the Caribbean HIV/AIDS Alliance’s country and regional commitments under our current funding partnership with USAID.
Key speakers at the seminar included Dr Amina Fernandez, clinical care co-ordinator, Bishop Kenneth Richards and the Very Reverend Dean Rudolph Smitten.
(More in today’s Daily OBSERVER)