People living with HIV torn between faith healers, doctors

RELIGION is the opium of the people, German economist Karl Marx said over 170 years ago. But to this day, his sentiments have become a lived reality in many spheres of life.
Those coordinating the national HIV response in Zimbabwe can bear testimony to Marx’s philosophy as they struggle to keep people on anti-retroviral therapy against the voice of religion.
While an estimated 80 percent of Zimbabwe’s population is Christian, according to Zimstat, the same percentage is believed to use traditional medicines, if parliamentary health committee findings are anything to go by.
“Who should I listen to? The doctor or the faith healer? That is our dilemma as HIV positive people every time we visit a n’anga, prophet or a pastor,” said Naomi Mapuranga (not real name).
Cognisant of such statistics, Amon Mpofu, National Aids Council (Nac) monitoring and evaluation director, admitted that beliefs are a critical component in the success or failure in the fight against the HIV virus and related deaths.
“Religion is a complex subject because it’s rooted in beliefs.  These people have so much influence. That’s why we always read about mature women being told to undress only to realise later that they have been raped,” said Mpofu.
“What we can’t do is say those things don’t work because we have seen many unbelievable things happening.
“What we are saying is let us prove beyond doubt that those things work. We should not take chances. It is rather better you do both (faith-based healing and modern medicines) because we have seen people dying as a result of defaulting (on the latter).”
Approximately 1, 3 million people are living with HIV in Zimbabwe. At least 850 000 people are currently accessing anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) under the government programme. While about 70 000 new HIV infections are recorded annually, 63 000 people succumb to HIV-related illnesses during the same period.
Oscar Mundida, Country Coordinating Mechanism coordinator for Global Fund, said experience has proved that faith healing goes beyond defaulting among HIV patients to exposure of the practitioners themselves.
“We have encountered traditional healers who tell you, yes I understand what you are teaching me but how do I control the spirit which uses me.
“Sekuru takes over when I’m working, he is the one who bites clients not me. I can’t control that, I have to ask mukumbi what would have happened afterwards. So you see both the client and the healer are not safe,” Mundida said.
Although the exact statistics of people who default on treatment annually are not readily available, Nac statistics for the period January to March this year show that nearly 4 000 clients were lost compared to 3 000 recorded in the fourth quarter of 2014.
Madeline Dube, Nac director of communications, said interactions with church leaders have shown there is still an information gap regarding the chronic condition.
“We had a meeting with heads of denominations sometime back, many still don’t understand HIV.
“They were asking questions like can it be contracted from sharing a cup or toilet? There is still an information gap despite decades of awareness campaigns,” Dube said.
While acknowledging the presence of divine powers which can turn an HIV positive person’s status to negative, Dube emphasised the importance of medically confirming one’s status before abandoning treatment.
“It shouldn’t end between you and your pastor; go back to the very person who told you you were HIV positive so that he or she tells you that you are no longer positive. 
“We know such miracles can happen but, before professional confirmation that your new status is negative, keep on taking your medication,” she said.
Dube added, “What is problematic is that some pastors even force their followers to stop taking drugs. They tell you we have prayed for you and you have been healed so throw your medication in that bin.”
Apart from shortening the life of an HIV positive person, defaulting also increases the cost of treatment as the person will require a stronger drug-line (second-line drugs) when resuming treatment.
In Zimbabwe, an estimated
13 000 people are receiving second line ARVs — a figure which represents 1, 5 percent of all people on treatment.
First-line ART is the combination of drugs given to a HIV-positive person who has not taken ARVs before.
Some people on ART will develop a ‘failure of therapy’. This means first-line ART is no longer effective as the HIV strain has become resistant to the course of drugs.
According to Averting HIV and Aids foundation website, such failure can occur as a result of drug resistance, poor adherence, poor drug absorption or a weak drug combination and increased viral load or a HIV-related illness are signs of treatment failure.
Local experts say, sometimes it is for fear of stigma and discrimination that people, despite being given free drugs by government and partners, choose to go for such alternatives.
Mpofu said the organisation has been working hard to forge cooperation between the two parallel treatment systems — albeit with little success.
“We have been working to make sure the two systems are integrated so that those people can take their ARVs while they are also being prayed for or are taking mushonga wechivanhu (traditional medicines) but there is general mistrust,” he said.
Although government has accommodated traditional practitioners by providing a dedicated department focusing on such medicines the Health ministry remains sceptical about the safety of the practitioners’ knowledge in the face of collaboration with modern medicines prescribers.
Sebastian Chinhaire, national chairman for Zimbabwe National Network of People Living with HIV , said cognisant of the effects of such doctrines and practices, government should come-up with legislation to curb the growing problem.
“The issue of healing in churches is a serious concern for us at a time we thought we were moving towards zero Aids related deaths. Many people are dying. Government should come up with a statutory instrument which can then be used to hold such prophets and healers to account,” said Chinhaire.
However, Loveness Mlambo-Chimombe, policy advocacy manager at Organisation for Public Health Interventions and Development, believes education remains the strongest weapon in destroying a defaulting culture growing among the population.
“What’s important is about individual empowerment. If that person is empowered enough, although they keep on going there, they will be empowered to make the right decision concerning their health,” she said.
Nac is continually engaging practitioners to find a common ground — a policy which has seen every board appointed to include a representative of faith healers.
“Although we acknowledge that such paradigm is long-overdue, many of us are concerned with how our knowledge is likely to be taken over by our counterparts,” said Sekuru Friday Chisanyu, a traditional healer-cum-herbalist who has opened his own modern clinic which provides over 130 herbs which cure a range of diseases.

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