AIDS

A friendship that brought life

Proverbs 17:17 says,"A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity." World Relief empowers the local Church in Mozambique to serve the most vulnerable by training community health workers to provide in-home care for the marginalized. Often, these volunteers provide lasting friendship to the people they serve, meeting not only their health needs but their spiritual and relational needs as well.

Esmeralda Fernandowas in a very vulnerable state before a trained community health worker reached out to her and helped her achieve a better quality of life. She has HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis. At only 22 years old, she is a widow and a single parent to her seven year-old child. Her husband passed away in 2013.

When she was first visited by the volunteer, Esmerelda and her husband both knew they had HIV/AIDS but had not been adhering to treatment. After her husband passed away, Esmerelda began heeding the words of the volunteer.

“When she first came to talk about our health and our possibility to re-start our normal life if we do regular treatment, we didn’t believe her because, for us, our life was close to the end," said Esmerelda. "When my husband passed away, [she] visited me more times and one day asked me who is going to take care of my child if I die.”

The community health worker helped Esmerelda realize that her health was fragile, precious and vital for the well-being of her daughter. Esmerelda began treatment and today, her health has improved.

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When we spoke to her, Esmeralda Fernando had a lot to say about the volunteer who showed her the love of Christ in word and deed. “I feel relief because of the work [she] did in my life,” she said. “She is like a sister to me. I decided to restart the treatment again and with the support of the [health worker] and my relatives even, [though we were not] sure of the results.”

The volunteer also helped Esmerelda enroll her daughter in school and obtain necessary school supplies. “Today, I am feeling good,” said Esmerelda. “I farm and produce my own food. I and my child are very happy and I am thankful too because it was able to help enroll my child in the school I also was able to learn a lot about community health. I am willing to pass the message to other people in the community."

Addressing HIV in India means strengthening marriages

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In India, we are empowering the local Church to transform marriages, protect families, care for those living with HIV/AIDS and prevent HIV/AIDS. All of this is done by addressing the root causes of HIV/AIDS – broken relationships. Our Families For Life curriculum, taught by the local Church, reinforces the importance of commitment, faithfulness and communication in marriage. We have seen these live-saving, Gospel-centered messages bring healing to broken families and entire communities.

World Relief introduced these pastors to the curriculum in February 2014. They said they wanted to be trained in the curriculum with their spouses so they could deliver the curriculum to their congregations. Since March, 65 new pastors have been trained to restore and strengthen their marriages and the marriages within their churches.

Our local staff member, Jeyaprakasham, said, “All the participants were very happy and actively involved in the program. It was a first time experience for many of the pastors and their wives to attend a meeting of this kind.”

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One pastor said, “I have been married for 24 years and I never thought of this - that my wife is my friend. Here begins our friendship, and we will be the best friends to each other.”

His wife added, I attend[ed] this kind of meeting for the first time in my life. I missed a lot in my married life. I will make it further and take it to our church.”

"This should not happen to people"

In honor of International Women's Day, our Country Director of Indonesia, Jo Ann de Belen reflects on those close to her heart and why she wants to be part of changing the world. I once knew a leper. He was close to me. Apart from his leprosy, he was just like any one of us. A creation made in the image of God. Without touching me, he taught me music, math, and how to laugh at myself. He contracted this dreaded illness when he was a child, at a time when there was no definite cure for it.

The stigma of the illness was so great, that his own family was ashamed to tell others. And so his parents kept this dark secret to themselves while they can. The teenage boy did not enjoy what others enjoyed. He was kept inside the house, not brought to big family gatherings or to be “displayed” publicly. He wore clothes that would conceal his open lesions.

Even when he was in a crowd, he felt alone. He suffered all this by himself, not understanding what it was. His parents, perhaps not knowing what to do, just pretended to the world that he did not exist. He grew up to be an adult and married and had children and tried to live a normal life. But the world wouldn’t let him. He died a lonely man, alone in a room, visited by only a handful.

As I remember this friend with leprosy and feel his isolation and pain, I remember the people we serve in the highlands of Papua. The ones infected with AIDS. What could they be feeling? Whatever it is, it couldn’t be much different from what the leper felt. Alone, isolated, shunned.

The stigma against AIDS is so strong, the oppression against people with AIDS so overpowering, that I ask…. What can we do? How can we change all this?

This should not happen to people, God’s own creatures made after His image and likeness.

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This is why I feel so strongly about God’s children learning to love those that the world has shunned, ridiculed, thrown away, isolated.

I long to see the church in Papua embrace back those who are afflicted with AIDS, to care for the children orphaned and made vulnerable by AIDS, and to make sure that this disease is wiped out of Papua.

I pray that God makes this happen soon. So that no one will have to suffer, and suffer alone.

Changing the Tide Together: The AIDS Crisis in 2012

Written by Debbie Dortzbach I often think about Mweni—the quiet three-year-old child of Ruth who was dying of AIDS when I first met her in Kenya in 1993.  Thinking the exposure to a dying parent would be too difficult for Mweni, her aunties usually kept her away. But Ruth begged her to come every day to see her and tell her about her day. Then she would pray for her.  I wonder how Ruth’s prayers were answered?  What was Mweni’s orphaned life like?  Did she finish school? Did she avoid HIV herself? Is she now married and raising a family? I do believe that somewhere tucked in her bundles of belongings is the treasured memory box of photos, letters, prayers, and small items Ruth left for Mweni  to remember her by.

Nearly 20 years have passed since Ruth died of AIDS. This month 25,000 people will gather in Washington DC to attend the 2012 International AIDS Conference. Many US and world leaders will stir us to press on to “turning the tide together”—the theme of the conference.  What is this tide, and what does it take to turn it together?

The AIDS crisis of the 1990s is still a crisis today. According to UNAIDS, nearly 34 million people are living with the virus, HIV, and 30 million have already died.  We have effective medications today that have turned the tide of this illness from snatching a life prematurely to making AIDS a chronic illness, but only eight million people access this medicine-for-life.  We don’t seem to win. For every new person treated with these life-saving drugs, two persons are newly infected. How do we change this rip tide that threatens to push us back to sea after so many years of hard-earned progress?

Actually, we know all we need to know, to change the course of this tide. And working together, the tide can be turned.  A surprising source demonstrates how.  Here are some lessons God’s people, committed to His body, the church, are applying so that Mweni’s children will not be part of another lost generation.

1. We, the church, are vulnerable.

For good reason, good public health targets vulnerable populations with specific, proven interventions to address communicable health concerns. Though many of us continue to point fingers at high risk populations such as men who have sex with men or drug addicts, the facts are that we all are vulnerable to sexual situations fueling this epidemic  unless our hearts, minds, and bodies are constantly guarded and our environments made accountable to one another.  Recognizing this changes everything, including one of the most lingering barriers to changing the tide—stigma.  Honesty leaves little room for pride and finger-pointing.

2. We, the church, can change—ourselves and our cultures.

The mobilized church has overcome self-righteous attitudes and actions and protected life, cared for the dying, and persevered to advocate for the voiceless child or battered woman. Widespread, unfounded fear of people with AIDS has been changed to embracing people living with AIDS.   A young Khmer girl in Cambodia attending an all-girl group on empowering girls to make wise sexual choices was asked about the kind of man she wanted to marry. Without hesitation she blurted out, “A man who will be faithful to me all my life.”

 3. We, the global church, are equipped to continue.

The international AIDS conference will make appeal after appeal for more funds, resources, research, and commitment. The church leads the global pack in sustainable and renewable interventions with resources that will never dry up—passion for the poor, shared households and physical goods, the truth and knowledge of God for everyday living, and the experience of forgiveness, healing, peace, and unconditional love.

The work of World Relief through partner global churches is turning the tide together with many millions of global players in the sea of HIV and AIDS. As pills to protect and sustain life are dispensed by ministries of health, the church is extending skills to change behaviors promoting wise choices regarding sexuality and marriage. As the Global Fund for HIV, AIDS, and TB seeks funds for coffers to prevent and care for persons with AIDS, the church opens its vast volunteer base to provide home care.  As rock stars like Bono lend their influence to advocate for millions of orphans and youth affected by AIDS, peer youth educators in grass-thatched churches use music and games to build life skills that encourage delaying sex until marriage.

Why not join us this very week, in committing your support to stem the tide and save Mweni’s generation?  We invite you to peer into the lives of church and World Relief volunteers in Haiti, Sudan, Kenya, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Mozambique, India, Cambodia, and Papua, Indonesia. Learn how they were equipped to address the stigma and fear of HIV in their countries and how today they are changing the face of the epidemic in their country—one precious life at a time, for all time.

Debbie Dortzbach is the Senior Health Advisor at World Relief, based in Baltimore, MD and author of "The AIDS Crisis: What We Can Do" with W. Meredith Long.

Photos by Marianne Bach and Benjamin Edwards

World AIDS Day 2011

Kandal Province, Cambodia: A sea of matching white hats filled the tent in Kohtaom District early this morning. More than 200 secondary school students dominated the crowd, and were joined by government officials, religious leaders, police, medical personnel and NGO representatives. They had gathered together to demonstrate the same message printed clearly on their red-ribbon t-shirts: “We are united to protect ourselves from AIDS.” Similar ceremonies are taking place across the globe this World AIDS Day. And there is much to celebrate. The combined response in the past decade by governments, donors, local organizations, international NGOs, and countless volunteers has resulted in new HIV infections falling, AIDS-related deaths decreasing, and treatment being made accessible to millions more individuals, particularly those in low- and middle-income countries.

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Here in Cambodia, participants reflected on the country’s astounding accomplishments in addressing the epidemic. Thanks to prevention efforts over the last nine years, adult HIV prevalence rate has been reduced from 1.2% to 0.5%. Cambodia is also one of the few countries in the world that provides antiretroviral therapy to more than 80 percent of those eligible for it.

The presence at today’s event of more than 100 HIV-positive individuals, however, was a stark reminder that the fight is not over and that resources and responses cannot waver. There are more than 75,000 people living with HIV in Cambodia, and they remain vulnerable. A recent national report found that HIV-affected households experienced lower income and increased medical expenses, which negatively impacted their financial stability, food security and psychosocial wellbeing, as well as the status of women and education of children.

More than 30 million people have died worldwide from AIDS-related causes since the epidemic began. And this does not begin to account for the untold toll on families, communities, and countries as a whole.

Yet despite so much unnecessary loss in the world, or perhaps to honor it, the overarching theme of today’s event was hope.

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The students, aged 15-18 years, sat attentively as World Relief staff presented a drama on the pressures of teenage life. The skit’s message was simple—to value life and make healthy choices about sex—but the issues it raised are relevant to these teens and complex to address: poverty, drug use, migration, “sugar daddies,” unplanned pregnancies and suicide.

World Relief meets with more than 7,000 youth throughout Cambodia on a weekly basis to discuss these issues. In Kohtaom District alone, World Relief works in 42 villages. Youth are provided a safe space to ask questions as they build life skills and learn about disease prevention, nutrition, and trafficking prevention. Evaluations have found that the program helps youth to increase their knowledge about AIDS, promote HIV testing, share health messages with friends, improve school attendance, avoid drug and alcohol abuse, and mentor orphans in their community.

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At the AIDS Day event students were randomly chosen and asked questions by the district officer to test their AIDS knowledge. Despite giggles from their friends when selected, each would walk confidently to the front and respond correctly to questions like, “What should people living with AIDS do to take care of themselves?”, “Can people who look healthy be infected by HIV?”, and “What should you do if your relative or friend finds out they are HIV positive?”

This is a generation for whom AIDS is a reality. They have never known the world without it. But they are informed, they are supported, and they are capable of making choices that protect their future. AIDS may be the currently reality, but with continued investments in the response, this generation can be the one to lead the charge on making it a thing of the past.

Imagine what an AIDS Day celebration we will then have.

Joanna Mayhew, World Relief Asia HIV/AIDS Programs Advisor