VIOLET MENGO, Lusaka
HILDA Panda, loves to live her life to the full. She has a somewhat ‘ controversial ’ positive outlook on her life so much that those who know her are attracted to her.
But this was not the case 15 years ago when she tested positive to HIV. Testing positive then for a carefree lively person like her meant a death sentence.
She went into depression and denial especially that she did not understand a lot of things about living positively.
Thankfully, through counselling and a strong family support system, Hilda accepted her HIV positive status as well as a life of adhering to life prolonging drugs-the anti-retrovirals (ARVs) until she was introduced to a ‘powerful prophet’ by her neighbour.
Completely hypnotised by the prophet and his teachings, Hilda stopped taking her medications because doing so was a sign that she had not been healed.
That decision cost Hilda her life. She died a few months later.
There are several similar cases recorded where individuals have ‘committed suicide’ in this manner.
The myth being peddled is that a word from God spoken by his agents-the pastors is so powerful that it kills the virus that causes a drop in the immune system thereby graduating from HIV to AIDS.
Those desperate like Hilda have succumbed to slurs that faith, and not anti-retroviral drugs is the only cure for HIV and AIDS.
It is worse when adequate amounts of education on HIV and AIDS are churned out to people but the scale of those who believe in the word of God as a cure is on the rise.
At the same time, people are now reverting to the drugs they voluntarily shelved in preference for the word of God to be cured.
What are the effects of drugs on an HIV positive individual who goes back to ARVs? How effective is the confession that a Christian stops taking drugs and the condition instead worsens, prompting the patient to go back to drugs?
Ministry of Health (MoH) is concerned about the emerging trend of religious leaders advising their members on ARVs to stop taking drugs after they have been prayed for.
MoH permanent secretary for administration Kennedy Malama says since the introduction of ARVs, the ministry has been seeing religious leaders telling their followers that they can be cured of HIV and AIDS through prayer.
“If someone is prayed for and are told they are healed of HIV, they should not stop taking the medication until samples are collected from them a n d tested,” Dr Malama advices.
This is because when one has been taking ARVs for a period of time and has adhered to medication, they may go in a state of viral suppression-where the virus cannot be easily detected by the ordinary HIV tests which relies on anti-bodies. The test may come out negative.
Dr Malama says stopping to take ARVs is very dangerous because one may become resistant to drugs should they consider resuming taking them, adding that a lot of people have died in the process.
Bible Gospel Church in Africa (BIGOCA) Bishop Peter Ndhlovu condemned pastors who are misleading their flock saying: “It’s dangerous to the public and dangerous in terms of health to stop taking ARVs without doctor’s advice.”
“It’s irresponsible,” the bishop said, suggesting that pastors should instead be honest enough to state that HIV and AIDS is incurable.
Bishop Ndhlovu says a growing number of self-proclaimed pastors with little understanding of the scriptures are the ones telling their members the power of prayer will cure their infections.
Meanwhile, Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) director Pukuta Mwanza says it is against the ministerial code of conduct for the clergy to advise people living with HIV to stop taking their medicines.
In as much as prayer works, Reverend Mwanza adds that the best pastors can do is to advise members prayed for to go back to the hospital for validation of their HIV status after receiving prayers.
Reverend Mwanza proposes a strong partnership between the MoH and the church.
Treatment, Advocacy and Literacy Campaign (TALC) execut ive di rector Fel ix Mwanza says it is an unfortunate development for a Christian nation.
“This practice by the clergy should be stopped at all costs because it is a well-known fact globally that no one has ever been healed of AIDS,” Mr Mwanza says.
Mr Mwanza said a precedence should be set to deter religious leaders from misleading their members by declaring spiritual healing for HIV when the condition has no known cure globally.
TALC believes people on ART treatment are contributing effectively to the growth of the nation and are living positively.
He added that some pastors are only out to make money from desperate people.
“It is essential that faith leaders engage with the problem of HIV as an issue and provide effective and truthful support and communication around the subject,” Mr Mwanza said. According to the Minister of National Guidance and Religious Affairs Godfridah Sumaili, a Christian is supposed to live by faith on Christian principles.
However, faith should not be overstretched to issues where God has given man the knowledge and ability.
“A m i r a c l e i s G o d ’s intervention in a situation man has failed. God has given us knowledge and has asked us to take dominion even in the area of medicine,” Reverend Sumaili says.
“It is God who gave man knowledge to discover ARVs and people should use them because they are meant to prolong lives of those living with the virus. We do not support any clergy encouraging members to discontinue taking their ARVs.”
She encouraged people especially those on ART to follow doctors’ advice.
The minister notes lack of knowledge, has made Christians especially women fall prey to false prophecies.
“Women should read and study the Bible so that they are not gullible and abused anyhow,” concludes the Minister.
And Minister of Health Dr Chitalu Chilufya has urged faith-based organisations to put in place proper communication channels of sensitising people on universal and routine HIV and AIDS testing seriously.
This is because currently, about 1.2 million people in Zambia are living with HIV. Yearly, the ministry records 46, 000 new HIV infections mainly among youths and adolescents.
To avoid unnecessary deaths like that of Hilda, the Ministry of Health encourages all HIV positive people once prayed for to return to a health facility and get tested to verify the results that prophets may have declared.