Religious groups must get more involved in the campaign against HIV/AIDS and educate their followers on the need to have their children screened for the disease.
The Catholic Archbishop for Abuja Diocese, John Cardinal Onaiyekan, made the call on Wednesday at an international conference on how to improve faith-based organisations’ impact in advocacy towards early child screening for HIV and treatment.
It was organised by Caritas Nigeria, a Catholic non-governmental organization, in collaboration with UNAIDS and PEPFAR at Transcorp Hilton Hotel.
The conference is a three-day regional consultation for distinguished personalities in the health sector, especially those working within the HIV/AIDS scope from Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Nigeria and other international donors.
It has as theme: “Early Diagnosis and Treatment for HIV-Positive Children Strengthening Engagement of Faith-based Organisation”.
According to Mr. Onaiyekan, it has become crucial to engage religious bodies as campaign tools to enlighten people on the need to get children and young adults tested for HIV as a way of early detection.
Stressing the place of religion in advocacy for healthcare, Mr. Onaiyekan pointed out that most of the missionaries who brought Christianity into Nigeria did so alongside health and education.
“Sickness is everybody’s problem and most of the miracles Christ did in the Bible are healing, this shows that he understands the place of illness in the body and care for the sick. HIV is an illness which we all need to come together to tackle.
“It is therefore not stupid to have a cause to have a spiritual support when addressing our bodily function when it needs care. Spiritualism and health go hand in hand from the religious point of view as we believe healing is the work of God”.
The cardinal pointed out that some of the problems Nigeria has in curtailing HIV/AIDS were inadequate knowledge and intervention from public hospitals.
“We keep hearing that there are anti-retroviral drugs to help those who are HIV positive to reduce the consequences of the condition, that we have not gotten the cure yet, just treatment. But even that treatment, what percentage of Nigerians who are HIV positive has access to these drugs?
“There is no reason why a child should die of HIV/AID. We need more hands on deck on advocacy on early screening for pregnant women so as not to transmit it to the unborn child and also to get young children get tested for the disease for quick intervention.
“We cannot just rely on the government to do it any longer, religious bodies need to come in. The government statistics even shows that there is still a lot of people yet to be covered, people are beginning to lose interest in the championing of the cause of those with the disease and this is affecting the funding for the drugs.
“If Mr. Trump and some other countries continue with the policy of their citizens first, then there will be problems in Africa. We should begin to ask question on the money released for funding and those in the Nigerian government, we should ask what is happening to it.”
He said the Catholic Church was ready to keep partnering with the government.
“All the government needs to do is tell us they are ready and how much they have and we are ready to partner with them.
“We have a good relationship with NACA, they have made available to our health facilities some of the funds and drugs they have on HIV project. We used to have a hospital in Kubwa, Daughters of Charity Hospital, which was the best HIV/AIDS facility in the whole of Nigeria, but it has been demolished by the government to make room for the railway, and the government has given us only 30 percent of the money to rebuild it.
“If I see the Minister of Health, I will tell him he should rebuild the Kubwa facility, it was built for us free of charge by some friends from Italy and when they heard that what they spent millions of dollar to build in Nigeria was demolished to make room for railway, they said what kind of country is this?” he added.
The Director-General of National Agency for the Control of AIDS, Aliyu Sani, who also represented the Minister of Health, Isacc Adewole, at the event, said the choice of Abuja for the regional consultation is strategic, since Nigeria accounts for 30 percent of the global burden of pediatric HIV/AIDS.
Mr. Aliyu said only 42,000 (20.7 percent) of the estimated 380,000 children living with HIV in Nigeria still have access to anti-retroviral treatment (ART), but that health agencies must understand the modest progress Nigeria has made despite its active embrace of the same strategies implemented all over the world.
He said over 80 percent of the comprehensive HIV treatment care centres in Nigeria are offering pediatric ART services.
Mr. Aliyu said the HIV facilities in the country have the capacity to cover the estimated 380,000 HIV positive children in the Nigeria even if they were to approach the health services all at once.
“We have revised our approach to the training of health workers to improve efficiency and maximize the number of health workers trained per Naira spent. We are implementing the entire indigenous clinic meeting that has exposed approximately 64 percent of our secondary level health facilities to focused high quality pediatric training, notwithstanding we are still open to new ideas that will improve and enhance the chances of achieving meaningful reduction of the burden of HIV among children in Nigeria” he said.
Sylvain Yuma, Head of Cabinet, Ministry of Public Health, DRC, said the consultation is of high importance to his country because it had late response to fighting HIV/AIDs among women and children and also access to ART.
“We started late but we are committed to bringing forward our fight on AIDs and that is because we have partnered with international health agencies.
“The health of children is so important and that is why we are discussing it and I hope we will come out with reasonable conclusions which can help us tackle the problem,” he said.
He added that the country was also working towards improving its budget on HIV/AIDs.