Category Archives: HIV & AIDS

HIV/AIDS responses in Asia: Growing together with Catholic values

By Francesca Matera, Volunteer at CI Delegation to the UN in Geneva

Members of Catholic Asia-Pacific Coalition on HIV and AIDS (CAPCHA) met for the third time, on 10-13 September, at the Camillian Pastoral Center in Bangkok, , to discuss and report on the development of the work of care and prevention carried out by Catholic organizations around Asia.

Fr. Giovanni Contarin, MI, Chairperson of Catholic Committee on HIV/AIDS in Thailand,  introduced this year’s theme, ‘Exchanging and Growing Together Within Catholic Values,’ with an inspiring welcome speech. Fr. Giovanni expressed appreciation for the work carried out by CAPCHA members and outlined the challenges that lay ahead. He mentioned, for example, the need to implement the United Nations Plan to address  Non-Communicable diseases and to join the global effort in the fight against HIV/AIDS by advancing the so-called ‘triple-zero’ target of no discrimination, no new HIV infections, and no deaths due to  AIDS-related illnesses.

Bishop Isao Kikuchi, President of Caritas Asia and Mr. Eleazar Gomes, Regional Coordinator, were among the meeting’s participants. Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis (CI) Special Advisor for HIV/AIDS and Head of CI delegation to the UN, reported on progress in the implementation of the Global Plan to Eliminate all New HIV Infections Among Children by 2015 and to Keep their Mothers Healthy. He also discussed ways for Catholic-inspired organizations to maintain fidelity to Catholic Church teaching while they engage in advocacy activities at the United Nations and in other inter-governmental organizations.

Upon his return in Geneva, Fr. Vitillo commented on the outcome of the event:“This gathering is an excellent example of South-South experience exchange. Participants face many challenges each day – many of them work in environments where the Catholic Church is in a small minority; “the poorest of the poor” are among those served by these organizations that are forced to struggle with lack of adequate and long-term funding. Yet they remain determined to accompany those living with or affected by HIV to fully develop their God-given human dignity.”

The delegates began the meeting with an field visit to HIV programs in the Bangkok area. One such site was the Human Foundation Development and Mercy Centre of Bangkok. This agency  was founded in 1972 to give the children of Klong Thoey, a slum suburb of Bangkok, a chance to exit poverty by improving education and fighting discrimination. The visitors were inspired by the human approach and the enthusiasm of staff and volunteers, One participant commented as follows, “Looking at the faces of the children, I could see they were very happy… Fr. Joe’s kindness and love enters the hearts of workers.”

CAPCHA was founded in May 2010 when the Catholic Committee on HIV/AIDS, supported by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand (CBCT), and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) organized a workshop at the Camillian Center to discuss the challenges of HIV and AIDS to the Catholic Church in Asia and Pacific. Some 100 people from 38 organisations of 15 Asian countries participated in that event. At the end of that first meeting, organisers and delegates agreed on the need for a more cooperative approach in the future.

A second meeting was held between 28 June and 1 July 2011.

Summary reports of the 2010 and 2011 events is available on CAPCHA’s website

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Good progress on AIDS – but funding remains an issue

By the Rev. Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Cartitas Internationalis Special Adviser on HIV/AIDS, and Ms. Aurorita Mendoza, CI volunteer in Geneva

As the days begin to wind down at the 19th International AIDS Conference, we’re hearing the good news – about an HIV-free generation, seeing the end of the epidemic, more and more people now receiving ARV treatment.  And indeed, the optimism has some basis. But let’s go a bit more deeply into both the progress and the challenges posed during this conference …

 Much scientific progress has been made.  The virus can be kept in check with a range of better medications, which are effective both for treatment and for preventing further spread of the disease. The hope of discovering an HIV vaccine has been boosted by some initial results of a vaccine trial in Thailand; it showed only guarded results for protection of people from HIV infection but at least it renewed our expectations that one day a broad-based vaccine will become available. Then we received during this conference the new World Health Organization guidelines regarding ARV treatments for pregnant women; following these should effectively reduce the transmission of the virus from mother to child.

Even more impressive have been results from different initiatives at the country and community levels.  The UNAIDS report, entitled Together we will end AIDS and released during this conference, demonstrates the decline of HIV prevalence in some countriesThis is largely due to efforts at providing better access to health care for all sectors in the population, including rural and marginalized groups, and due to efforts to eliminate the rejection of people living with or affected by HIV. The Global Plan towards the elimination of new HIV infections among children by 2014 and keeping their mothers healthy is showing good progress after a year of implementation. Caritas Internationalis is privileged to play an active role in this initiative, especially with our HAART for Children campaign.

We still have some way to go before we can actually say the job is done.  Nonetheless, we seem to be on the right track.

In northern Uganda, Caritas Slovakia is building a centre for HIV-positive orphans. Photo by Michal Fulier for Caritas Slovakia

But the following question might win the “prize” for being asked most often during the various sessions: Will there be enough funding to sustain AIDS programmes?

During the conference, I was invited to join other faith leaders in a meeting with the Interim Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. He told us that the Fund is  again on steady waters and announced additional funding for the 2012-2014 period. He promised there will be changes in procedures and funding cycles that will certainly affect implementation on the ground.  PEPFAR funding is expected to diminish, but we were reassured that the US Congress will continue to re-authorize it.

However, there still is reason for concern.  With faith-based communities counting on external support, we are experiencing funding cuts that compromise the reach and quality of our services. Much work by religious organizations has been supported by the Global Fund (GF) and PEPFAR. Christoph Benn of the Global Fund reported in the Catholic pre-conference that, since the Fund was initiated, faith-based organizations (FBOs) have received over US $645 million in GF grants in 77 countries.  In PEPFAR-supported countries, FBOs have been key implementing partners.  But the funders also brought the sobering news that increases in funding are not likely given the climate of the global economic crisis. Representatives of faith-based organizations candidly shared that they are being told to “do more with less” and then  pointed out that this is not possible when 8 million more people need to get access to medicines if we want to save their lives.

During the intense funding debates held during the conference, it became more and more clear that we cannot expect to support the research, prevention, and treatment demands over the next few years by relying on international funding alone.  So a strong call was issued, even to governments in developing countries, to increase domestic spending on AIDS programmes. UNAIDS reported that, between 2006 and 2011, some 80 countries had increased their domestic investments for AIDS by more than 50%. The responsibility is shifting.  National ownership is essential to take charge both of AIDS financing and programming.

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HIV care: the Catholic difference

At a centre in Nepal, Catholic sisters care for women and children who are living with HIV. Women at the centre embroider saris to earn money. Photo by Laura Sheahen/Caritas

In Washington, D.C. to attend the International AIDS Conference, Finola Finnan of Trocaire (Caritas Ireland) delivered an address to the White House Forum for Faith Leaders. As Chairperson of the Catholic HIV/AIDS Network (CHAN), Finnan spoke about how many Church-related organisation provide not just medicine, but care for the whole person. Read an excerpt below and then read the address.

…I visited Makondo in Uganda, where the Medical Missionaries had lived and worked in the community for over fifty years. They were there through Amin’s time, through Obote’s and Museveni’s – they were there at the advent of AIDS. Their response was truly comprehensive – they provided support for orphaned and vulnerable children; an efficient and well-run clinic; treatment and referrals for Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission (PMTCT) of HIV; home care visits; livelihoods for children who had lost their parents; a roof for a family that had no money to repair it; and nutritional support for those who needed it to stay on treatment.

Our final visit was to a woman who was dying of an AIDS-related tumour. She was a young woman with young children. She was in incredible pain. The home-based care (HBC) team were helping her to die with dignity, helping her husband and children to make the transition to a life without her. They brought prayers, support and medication. The HBC volunteers were from her community, providing a safe space to ensure that she was able to live and to die with dignity.

Read the address

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Keeping children HIV-free and keeping their mothers alive

By Msgr. Robert Vitillo, Caritas Internationalis Special Advisor on HIV/AIDS, and Ms. Aurorita Mendoza, Caritas Internationalis Volunteer in Geneva

One year following the launch of the Global Plan towards the elimination of new HIV infections among children by 2015 and keeping their mothers alive, two-thirds of the 22 focus countries are showing good progress towards meeting their targets.

Father Pius Perumana chats with children at a shelter for HIV-positive mothers and children near Kathmandu, Nepal. Caritas is working to prevent mother-child transmission of the virus. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

UNAIDS timed its Progress Report on the Global Plan to coincide with the International AIDS Conference, held in Washington, DC, between 22-27 July 2012. UNAIDS reported an optimistic trend in the implementation of this comprehensive strategy to benefit pregnant women and children living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. The Plan was launched in June 2011, and aims to reduce the number of children infected by HIV by 90% by 2015 and to reduce pregnancy-related deaths among women with HIV by 50%.

Of the 22 countries, eight – Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – are showing a rapid (30%) decline of infections among pregnant women and are projected to reach their targets by 2015.  Seven other countries are reporting a moderate decline of between 20-30% and will need to accelerate programme implementation.  On the other hand, seven countries, where less than 20% decline in HIV among pregnant women is seen, are at risk of not reaching their targets.

The Global Plan builds on the success of high-income countries in reducing HIV transmission from mothers to their newborns (PMTCT).  This ambitious initiative focusing on 22 countries with the largest numbers of women living with HIV is expected to see not only increased number of women and children with HIV on antiretroviral treatments, but also better linkages between maternal and child health and HIV facilities resulting in improved health outcomes for mothers and their children.

The UNAIDS Report highlights some critical challenges in sustaining this progress trajectory.    To achieve the Global Plan targets, we will need to reach out with diagnosis and treatment to HIV-positive women during pregnancy, delivery, and breastfeeding and to use antiretroviral medicines both efficiently and effectively.  Among the 21 priority countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 61% of HIV-positive women receive antiretroviral medicines during pregnancy, but that number  drops down to 29% during breastfeeding.  Consequently, transmission rates during breastfeeding remain high.  In addition, switching to preferable and more effective medication regimens involve longer treatment periods for both pregnant mother and infant and require tremendous amounts of financial resources..  A further challenge is increasing coverage of ART for children, currently estimated at 22%, far lower than the adult coverage of 57%.

What will change in the way focus countries will meet these challenges?  UNAIDS and PEPFAR, which are at the helm of the Global Plan, stress the essential role of communities, who can drive demand for health care among women as well as provide key health services.  In sub-Saharan Africa, faith-based organizations provide 30-70% of health services.  For example, the HIV programmes implemented by Caritas members and other Catholic organizations in the Global Plan focus countries prioritize Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmssion (PMTCT) services, including counseling and testing, ARV treatment, nutritional support, and early infant diagnosis.  The Report concludes that the effective engagement of communities must be resourced with financial investment, technical support, and a commitment to the involvement of women and mothers living with HIV.

By launching its HAART for Children Campaign in 2009, Caritas Internationalis articulated the goal of ending mother-to-child transmission of HIV by calling for early testing and treatment of HIV+ pregnant women. The Campaign also calls for development of “child-friendly” medicines for HIV+ children since, without such treatment, 50% of children living with HIV die before their second birthday and one-third die before their first birthday.



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HIV survivor: Catholic centres ‘won’t turn us away’

By Monsignor Bob Vitillo

“When I discovered I was HIV-positive, I was shocked and asked, ‘Why has God allowed this virus to maim and kill people? Does He still live in me? How?’”

Spoken by a person living with HIV, these are words that caregivers in Catholic Church-inspired organizations have to face wherever we work. In addition to making sure we’re getting lifesaving medicine to the far corners of the developing world, in addition to making sure people are taking the right doses at the right times, in addition to keeping up with the latest medical advances, we have to think about the whole person— including the spiritual dimension of the disease.

At a centre in Nepal, Catholic sisters care for women and children living with HIV. The centre also helps women earn a living by raising livestock. Photo: Laura Sheahen/Caritas

For the past few days, and for the rest of this week, I and my colleagues are focusing on all these questions at the 19th International Conference on HIV and AIDS in Washington, D.C.

Those of us associated with Catholic organizations gathered first at the Catholic University of America for a pre-conference. We know that at the main conference center, we will meet scientists, nurses, HIV experts of many kinds. We’re all fighting a common battle. But we also feel it important to share the Catholic Teaching and values that motivate us in our work and to share lessons learned and challenges still to be faced by our Catholic Church-sponsored programmes.

Often, the first contact people living with HIV have with ART (Anti-Retroviral Treatment) is in a remote clinic near their village. Sometimes the clinics are run by governments or other organizations. Sometimes they are run by faith-based organizations (FBOs) like Caritas.

There’s a lot of good news here at the conference. Over 8 million people are receiving ART; Catholic organizations are responsible for successfully getting these medicines to many of them.

There is more good news. In the past, the virus often was passed from mother to child during pregnancy or birth or even during breastfeeding. Now we know how to minimize the risk of transmission, and thanks to the efforts of NGOs and funding made available by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria; PEPFAR; and others, there’s been a 24% decrease in mother-child transmission during the past 2 years.

When people do contract HIV, they are able to live longer thanks to ART, have fewer serious illnesses, and a better quality of life.

But there is a lot to worry about, too. Finola Finnan of Trocaire (Caritas Ireland), who is Chairperson of the Catholic HIV/AIDS Network – CHAN, spoke of a 63% unmet need for treatment. She pointed out how funding has flat-lined or been sharply cut due to the economic crisis. She mentioned HIV treatment centers in Uganda and South Africa that are forced to turn people away once their quotas are filled.

Joshua Mavundu, a person living with HIV, works as an advocate and activist with Batani AIDS Service organization. He spoke about his own situation in Zimbabwe, and discussed flat-lining budgets, saying that “This is short-circuiting the lives of people – without ART they will die.”

Mavundu also talked about a difference that is quite evident in his country. “The government institutions have collapsed but doctors still are in the faith-based hospitals – the faith-based offer the best and affordable treatment. In government institutions, if you do not have money they will turn you away, but because of the care and love in faith-based institutions, they will not turn you away.”

Caritas is often the only option sick people have. So we will keep struggling to access funding no matter what it takes. But as we focus on getting the resources we need to provide medicine, we don’t forget the spiritual needs of the people we serve.

At the pre-conference, Jesuit father and director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network, Paterne-Auxence Mombé, talked about the experience of a priest who was counseling Kosiwa, a woman with HIV. “Fr. Gilles noticed that from the day she heard about her HIV status, she lived in the feeling that God had abandoned and punished her. She was pessimistic and negative about everything. After listening to her, Fr. Gilles felt the need to propose a spiritual journey, praying with some Scripture readings according to a method of prayer proposed by Saint Ignatius. This spiritual journey helped Kosiwa discover a different image of God, reconcile with Him and others, and retrieve hope and courage to live positively.”

“A listening presence is crucial here; maybe it is the first step of a healing process,” continued Father Mombé. “Sometimes, the role of the Church or of the pastoral caregiver is just to be there and listen.”

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Faith Perspectives and AIDS

In Nepal, Caritas provides group housing for women and children living with or affected by HIV and AIDS. At one shelter, women earn money by embroidering saris. Photo by Katie Orlinsky for Caritas

By Monsignor Bob Vitillo

How does our faith anchor and propel the Catholic Church’s response to people living with HIV? In addition to providing the best care, HIV programs implemented by Catholic organizations must also be sources of compassion and strength. Science and technology are vital to health care, but pastoral accompaniment can make a critical difference to people living with or affected by HIV.

This is one crucial message that Caritas will bring to the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. this month. The conference will be attended by overwhelming numbers (some 30,000 are expected!) of scientists, activists, researchers, people living with HIV and health care and social development professionals—everyone on the frontlines of the fight against AIDS.

The IAC has been a rallying point for these different communities to highlight, disseminate and advocate for a wide range of issues that cover scientific and medical breakthroughs, epidemiological trends, programmatic achievements, and partnership models, as well as much-needed compassion and care. Faith-based communities will be strongly represented — a demonstration of their involvement in the AIDS response – at both global and local levels.

In preparation for the International Conference itself, a Catholic Pre-conference on HIV and AIDS will be convened on 21 and 22 July on the campus of the Catholic University of America. Those engaged in Catholic Church-inspired HIV programs will have an opportunity to further ground their work in Catholic values and doctrine, share lessons learned, identify ongoing challenges, and become more acquainted with models and experiences from across the globe. One session will deal with how funding cutbacks are threatening the sustainability of our programs. Interactive workshops will also be held to facilitate experience-sharing. Each session will provide us with further inspiration as we stay faithful to our HIV-related mission during these challenging times.

Co-sponsors of the Catholic Pre-conference include: Caritas Internationalis, including its member organizations – Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Relief Services; Catholic HIV/AIDS Network (CHAN); the Catholic Medical Mission Board; and the Office of African American Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

All staff or volunteers engaged in Caritas or other Catholic programs, and planning to participate in the 19th International AIDS Conference, are invited to join us at the Catholic Pre-Conference to learn, share, and pray together.

Further details on the plenary sessions and workshops may be obtained from the attached documents; registration may be completed by connecting with the following web link:

Catholic Pre-Conference Descriptions

Catholic Pre-Conference Timetable

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Pope meets with UNAIDS chief

Executive Director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé. Photo: Wiki Commons

Executive Director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibé was in Rome yesterday for meetings with Pope Benedict XVI, Holy See officials and Caritas Internationalis representatives. Sidibé asked Pope Benedict for his support in keeping children free from HIV. He said it’s an achievable goal and one which can be reached by 2015.

“Millions of people around the world living with and affected by HIV are being supported by Catholic health care organisations,” said Mr Sidibé. “The full engagement of the Catholic Church in efforts to achieve zero new HIV infections among children is of paramount importance.”

Listen to Philipp Hitchens interview with Michel Sidibé.

UNAIDS and partners launched last year a Global Plan towards the elimination of new HIV infections among children by 2015 and keeping their mothers alive. The plan outlines a strategy which focuses particularly on the 22 countries that account for more than 90 percent of new HIV infections in children world-wide.

Sidibé also met with Michel Roy, Secretary General of Caritas Internationalis, which serves as one of the civil society organisations represented on the steering committee of the Global Plan to eliminate new HIV infections in children. Continue reading

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