The world has been battling the spread of HIV and Aids which continues to claim millions of lives every single day.

It is for this reason that majority of these people are pinning their hopes on science and medicine while others in Zimbabwe have resorted to faith healing.

“Humanity has been shaken to the core by the HIV and Aids pandemic,” says Michael Bartos, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and Aids (Unaids) country director for Zimbabwe.

He was speaking at St Mary’s Lutheran Church in Chitungwiza recently where a faith-healing and HIV discussion forum was held.

The forum also included participants from the Southern Africa HIV and Aids Information Dissemination Service (SAfAids).

These specialist groups shared findings on the relation between faith healing from women living with HIV and how this impacted on accessing treatment.

Barton hailed Zimbabwe for its great strides towards reducing the prevalence of HIV which had fallen from 100 000 per year to current levels of 60 000 per year owing to the use of anti-retroviral therapy.

The discussions were focused on a booklet entitled: Stories of shattered hope: Experiences of women living with HIV and Faith Healing in Zimbabwe which was jointly funded by both Safaids and Unaids.

The booklet shows that faith-healing practices in Zimbabwe have rapidly increased, creating a sense of despair and insecurity.

“For many women living with HIV (WLHIV) persuasive faith-healers ‘promising’ a cure are hard to resist as societal stigma persists. Efforts have been made to engage the religious sector in a bid to counter the often damaging services and practices offered by some faith healers.

“As long as demand for the services is available, faith-healers can – by law – continue to supply these services,” noted the booklet.

Fountain of Life Ministries church pastor Caroline Maposhere, who also doubles as an HIV activist reckoned that faith was a critical part of happiness and health which must be incorporated in faith-healing discussions.

“When we talk of medication and HIV, it is not new – faith helps your state of mind, so the effect of your state of mind on disease and illness is not new to HIV. This is where faith can really help. With medical conditions, you are told not to stress, and we know faith and fellowship relaxes you and makes the medicines work better so you have better health and life outcomes,” Maposhere said.

She urged church leaders to equip themselves with knowledge on HIV and appreciate God for availing HIV treatment since congregants look up to them for information regarding the pandemic.

“As fellow church leaders, we must know what to say when someone comes to you with ‘undetectables’ – it is cause to celebrate but do not make the mistake of saying you are now free from the condition. You have to continue taking medication,” Maposhere said.

International Network of Religious Leaders living with or affected by HIV and Aids (INERELA + ) Zimbabwe chapter Reverend national coordinator Zvidzai Chiponda said the church must be seen as a place where love and care for people living with HIV was not discriminatory and non-stigmatising.

“We also need to understand faith-healing inclusively of biomedicine – God has made it possible to provide ARVs and is still working his miracles through ARVs – this is God’s hand throughout – his healing hand through the power of ARVs.God who determines when and how He wants to heal you,” Chiponda said.

She added that there was need to understand healing in the context of cure and reiterated that there is no cure for HIV at the moment.

“Religious leaders should not manipulate or abuse people in their congregations. We should neither attack nor tamper with people living with HIV just because they have not been healed. Taking ARVs does not mean that you do not have faith. God and ARVs are meant for everyone whether or not they belong to some church or belief system because the very same God is the one who made it possible for scientists to come up with this treatment,” Chiponda said.

Chiponda, who is living with HIV, lost her daughter after succumbing to HIV complications. She has since 2006, been taking anti-retroviral therapy.

Another woman living with HIV Margret Cement (38) said she nearly died after a prophet had told her to stop taking treatment (ARVs).

“I developed sores in and around my private parts, even though my husband and I were using condoms. I knew something was wrong. I went to the clinic and they took my CD4 count and it had dropped dramatically from +/-350 to only 115. So this was the result of not taking my ARVs,” Cement said.

Cement bemoaned how church leaders denigrated her for lacking faith when she resumed taking ARVs and was subjected to ridicule and discrimination until she left and joined a new church that permits people living with HIV to take medication.

“I worship and help many other people living with HIV from my new church and I am now so free and open about my condition. We actually have a support group of people living with HIV (PLHIV) at church where we encourage and share ideas on how to stay healthy. The only way to stay healthy is to continuously take your medicines so that the viral load is curtailed. I now have a second baby who is nine months old and I give thanks to my church that has encouraged me to remain focused on God. My faith is intact,” Cement added.

Church leaders disclosed that members were aware on where to get HIV/Aids information but they however noted that it was easy to discuss HIV preventive measures only at workshops.

“It is difficult to discuss this in a church environment where some are closely related, like for example in-laws. Church leaders may devise a strategy to enable PLWHIV give testimonies on how they are living positively with HIV,” Bible Believing Church leader Mike Muwani.

Churches also compromised congregants’ to adherence to ARVs during fasting and that the lack of confidentiality on the part of pastors who disclosed the HIV status of PLWHIV.

Lack of resources for home-based care initiatives, discordant couples and denial were among the challenges that churches were battling with in the fight against HIV.

As part of solutions, church leaders were urged to link the church doctrine with biomedicine, create HIV and Aids information desks, discourage stigma and discrimination and promote awareness on the prevention and treatment of HIV and Aids.