Stigma, lack of health care, fake drugs impeding HIV fight, speakers say

IMAGE: CNS photo/Diego Azubel, EPA

By Carol Glatz

CITY (CNS) — The fight against HIV/AIDS is being hampered by continued stigma
against those who are infected, a lack of access to appropriate medical care
and fake antiretroviral drugs pedaled on the black market, said activists
taking part in a Caritas Internationalis conference.

brought together representatives of faith-based groups from all over the world
to hammer out a “road map” indicating the best ways to promote or
provide early diagnosis and treatment for HIV, especially in children. The
gathering was organized together with UNAIDS, the U.S. President’s Plan for
AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Vatican’s pediatric hospital, Bambino Gesu.

80 people active in HIV/AIDS policy and relief work took part in the conference
April 11-13 in Rome.

importance of offering effective antiretroviral treatment can be seen in the
work of Loretto Sister Mary Owens, executive director of Nyumbani, which
provides care and support in Kenya for HIV/AIDS survivors, especially children.

told Catholic News Service that when she and the organization’s founder, U.S.
Jesuit Father Angelo D’Agostino — a medical doctor — started in the 1990s
taking in children who were abandoned because they had HIV/AIDS, “we had
no access to antiretroviral treatment” and the mortality rates of
children in their care were high.

getting help from PEPFAR in 2005, everyone in their care has access to proper
treatment and their eldest HIV-positive resident is turning 35 this year, she
said with a smile.

a huge joy to see our kids grow up. One boy is now married and has a son who is

Owens, who moved from Ireland to Kenya in 1969, said her biggest priorities now
are lobbying for help in testing people for drug resistance so the appropriate
treatments can be prescribed immediately and getting access to more advanced

awareness campaigns and action over the decades, stigma is still a huge problem
in Kenya, she said.

HIV “is purely a medical condition,” she said, and she wants people
to know “how unjust it is to stigmatize people, especially children, who
are so vulnerable,” and who merely “inherited the virus” during
gestation or breastfeeding from an infected mother who didn’t get any or
appropriate treatment.

Francis would be the perfect advocate in persuading people to not be afraid of
people with HIV/AIDS, she said, pointing to how his appeals and gestures on
behalf of migrants have alerted and mobilized people globally.

would be nice to have the pope “just make a statement, embrace a child
with HIV,” she said, to help draw the needed attention to their plight and
remind people of their responsibility to help. These “people have a right
to treatment and care.”

from Caritas Myanmar — Karuna Mission Social Solidarity — told CNS April 13
that less than 2 percent of their country’s national gross domestic product is
invested in health care.

lack of resources means some government agencies are “weak,”
including the one in charge of regulating pharmaceuticals to guarantee quality
and safety, said Dr. Win Tun Kyi, national director of Caritas Myanmar.

low drug supplies, doctors and clinics have to rely on the cross-border
purchases and the black market for many pharmaceuticals including basics like
penicillin and vaccinations, he said.

said these medications are “usually low quality and there are lots of fake
drugs out there. I am a medical doctor and I don’t know if a drug is good”
and where it really came from since there are no guaranteed controls.

antiretroviral treatment has been key to preventing the spread of HIV and
extending the lifespan and quality of life of those infected. But the stigma of
having HIV is still strong in Myanmar, Kyi said, so people who are infected
often “don’t disclose their situation and get (the drugs) from the border
markets” on their own without adequate medical supervision.

Tuai Sian Piang, program manager of health and HIV/AIDS for Caritas Myanmar,
told CNS that when he started working on the program in 2005, church leaders
were just as reluctant as the larger society to face and understand the problem
of HIV/AIDS. Now, local bishops are more aware and help promote a church that
openly embraces, cares for and supports people with HIV/AIDS.

church’s medical, social, spiritual and psychological support services for
patients are so respected and effective, Kyi said, that “the government
will refer people to us.”

church plays a critical role in raising awareness and spurring action, he said,
because the traditional local culture means most people “are very shy, we
don’t speak up easily, it takes lots of energy to defreeze” rigid
appearances hiding real problems.

Because of the
cultural obstacles and social taboos associated with HIV/AIDS, a purely medical
response is not enough, he said. “Lots of social interventions are
needed,” he said, as well as knowing how to navigate the “moral
landscape” in order to address the problem in a holistic manner.

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