WASHINGTON, July 12 (RNS)--In the decade or so since AIDS emerged as an epidemicin Africa, the deadly disease has devoured some 19 million livesworldwide and is expected to slice life expectancy to as low as 30 insome African nations. As skyrocketing infection rates promise more tocome, faith-based relief agencies have enlisted a new ally in their ownbattle with the viral monster: African churches.

"In my experience I've found that really it is the church that hasbeen taking care of the dying and even making some attempt at HIV/AIDSprevention," said Ann Doherty, director of programming for CatholicMedical Mission Board. The not-for-profit charity, based in New York, isgearing up to launch its own AIDS/HIV counseling program on thecontinent this fall.

"And it is the churches who come forward to take care of orphans ofAIDS victims," Doherty said. "The churches have been there all along, soit only makes sense to work together."

Any real dent in the AIDS epidemic cannot be made without the helpof African churches, said Debbie Dortzbach, director of an HIV/AIDSprevention program in Africa run by World Relief, the international aidarm of the National Association of Evangelicals.

"The church is already established in the community. It is usuallywell-respected, and it has a ready audience," said Dortzbach. She was oneof several World Relief staffers who attend the 13th International AIDSconference in Durban, South Africa, which ended Friday. "Whenchurches use their position in the community to distribute accurateinformation, they can sometimes be more effective than clinics and otherhealth institutions, which are so busy with so many numbers of patientsthat they don't really have the time to sit down and counsel veryoften," she said.

Churches play a large role in encouraging responsible personalbehavior, said Dortzbach, and can offer a spiritual context forprevention messages in secular campaigns.

"Messages about abstinence and faithfulness are out there but it isthe church that can really illustrate and address those issues mosteffectively." said Dortzbach. "The church gives the necessary contextabout faithfulness and abstinence until marriage."

In Rwanda, World Relief has teamed up with churches to distributeabout 2,000 manuals for people who provide home care to people infectedwith the virus. Some caregivers are as young as 10 years old, saidDortzbach.

"We went that young because our experience has shown us time and timeagain that the children are often the primary caregivers for theirparents dying of AIDS," she said, noting the manual will be adapted foruse in other countries including Malawi, Mozambique and South Africa."The need for home care is overwhelming, and the resources for meetingthat need outside the home are nonexistent nearly everywhere."

Catholic Relief Services, the overseas relief arm of the UnitedStates Catholic Conference, plans to do the same in Kenya, a nationoften considered the epicenter of the AIDS crisis, said Susan Hahn, whoserved as the organization's East Africa regional director for the pastseven years and is now director of program quality support. She said thegroup's AIDS/HIV prevention programs in Africa stretch back 10 to 15years, and include mobile clinics and programs in Catholic schools inBurundi.

"You can't be involved in health and social services in Africawithout dealing with the AIDS crisis," said Hahn. "We have shifted ourfocus from hospital-based care to community-based care, and localchurches are definitely a huge help with that."

The Medical Mission has already entered a five-year partnership tofight AIDS with the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference andpharmaceutical powerhouse Bristol-Myers Squibb. The mission will donate$1 million--25 percent of its healthcare budget--to AIDS/HIVprevention programs in South Africa for the next five years.

"AIDS is such an extraordinary epidemic, the religious community isobligated to help," said Doherty. "Sometimes a religious leader is theonly person the community resident can go to in a time of crisis."

In countries where African churches have collaborated with localgovernments and non-governmental organizations to stop the spread ofAIDS, infection rates have decreased, said Dortzbach, citing Uganda asan example.

"In Uganda, the church has been involved from the very beginning andit has paid off," said Dortzbach, noting that by the end of the lastdecade Uganda was the first African nation whose rate of new infectionswas on the decline. "The church has partnered with all sectors ofsociety, and together they have lowered the prevalence of AIDS in thatcountry. Now I think there's a real commitment on the part ofgovernments to see the church involved more--Uganda is considered asuccess story.


On a continent where an estimated 5,500 people die of AIDS everyday, the African church's role in HIV/AIDS prevention cannot be ignored,said Clive Calver, president of World Relief.