(Vatican Radio) Catholic organisations working on HIV and AIDS began a meeting in Durban on Friday, ahead of the 21st International AIDS Conference, due to open in the same South African city next Monday.
The meeting, organised by Caritas Internationalis and the Catholic HIV & AIDS Network, in conjunction with local Southern African partners, brings together many Catholic groups playing a major part in providing diagnosis, care and prevention programmes for people living with the HIV virus.
The papal nuncio to South Africa, Archbishop Peter Wells, and the Archbishop of Durban, Cardinal Wilfred Napier were among those welcoming participants to the opening session of the three day pre-conference.
Another key speaker at the meeting is Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis special advisor on HIV and health. He talked to Philippa Hitchen about the goals of the encounter and the progress that faith based organisations have achieved since the first global AIDS conference was held in Durban in the year 2000….
Mgr Vitillo notes that the Church has been organizing pre-conferences like this one for over 20 years to share good practices, to discuss the ethical and theological issues specific to the Catholic Church in AIDS ministry, and to pray for the work of the global conferences.
He recalls that access to proper medical treatment, especially for developing countries, began at the Durban 2000 conference, where activists demanded an end to discrimination and “second class citizenship” for HIV-infected people in poorer countries. From that conference, he says, the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was born, followed by the U.S government’s PEPFAR programme, the two largest funders of treatment programmes in low income countries.
Access to treatment remains a challenge
While huge progress has been made since that first Durban conference, Mgr Vitillo says too many people in rural areas or minority communities still don’t have access to life saving HIV treatment. Furthermore, almost 50% of all people living with HIV still don’t know their status and are therefore likely to spread the disease to their sexual partners, he says. Another vulnerable group, he adds, are babies infected through breast- feeding after their mothers stop taking the ARV drugs.
Vital role of faith based organisations
Faith groups, he says, continue to play a vital role, often providing up to 50% of treatment in some countries. In particular, he notes, they treat people in rural areas where government programmes don’t reach and they’ve pioneered creative ways of bringing treatment to the communities in need, rather than expecting people to walk for a day to the nearest centre. Importantly, he adds, faith groups offer integral programmes, not just treating physical symptoms, but also responding to social situations, pioneering self-help groups and assisting widows and orphans.ù
Children: a priority in Durban
In particular, Mgr Vitillo points to the role of the Catholic Church in pioneering better pediatric treatment for children, recalling how Caritas Internationalis and other groups invited UN and government experts to the Vatican in April to draw up an action plan to address the specific needs of children. He notes that the main Durban conference is due to introduce a super-fast track for children – the first time they have received so much attention at an international AIDS conference.