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Building bridges between the HIV and TB responses

Building bridges between the HIV and TB responses

Maureen Murenga. Photo: Paul Jeffrey/WCC

22 July 2018

When Maureen Murenga’s son was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB), she discovered that TB was even more stigmatizing in her community than HIV. Both Maureen and her son are living with HIV, but it was when he was on treatment for TB that other parents removed their children from school to avoid contact with him, even though he was no longer infectious.

The role of faith groups in ending TB, a major killer in people living with HIV, was tackled at the “Faith Building Bridges” interfaith event in Amsterdam on 21 July.

For Murenga, executive director of The Lean on Me Foundation in Kenya, linking HIV and TB are essential. “We cannot save lives if we only focus on HIV and not on one of the leading causes of [AIDS-related] deaths, TB,” she said.

Dr Satvinder Singh, medical officer with the World Health Organization, stated that while deaths worldwide from TB have been reduced from an estimated 1.3 million in 2016 to around 1 million in 2017, it is still the leading cause of death among infectious diseases, and accounts for 37 percent of AIDS-related deaths.

As Singh stated, “TB is preventable and curable. There is no reason we can’t do more.”

Yet more isn’t being done.

In the 1970s, too many thought TB wasn’t a threat anymore, noted Dr Lucica Ditiu, executive director of the Stop TB Partnership.

But TB attacks the vulnerable, and as it’s an airborne disease, everyone is at risk. Every person not being treated on average infects 15 more people, so “the minimum you need to know is TB still exists,” she stated. But what really has to be done is combining HIV and TB efforts.

She noted that f rom the TB side, 80% of people with TB are offered HIV testing.. “We need the HIV side to catch up,” she said. “We will not end one disease without each other.”

David Bryden, Stop TB advocacy officer of RESULTS, said faith communities and especially religious leaders need to advocate with their governments to make TB a priority, particularly as a United Nations High Level Meeting on TB will be held in September 2018.

“HIV leaders need to be at the table,” said Bryden. “You have a stake in the TB advocacy effort.“

Vietnam and Ghana testimonies of joint HIV-TB efforts

Faith-led health services in Vietnam and Ghana provided examples of combining HIV and TB responses.

The Mai Tam Shelter in Vietnam serves orphan and vulnerable children, as well as single mothers, living with HIV. Fr John Toai, Camillian stated that all the children and mothers are also screened for TB. Vietnam’s dense population, and the many migrant workers who are unable to return home to access treatment, are some of the underlying reasons why TB causes more deaths in the country than traffic accidents.

In the shelter, though, they know “God asks only one thing,” says Fr John, “and we begin by being present with the people.”

In Ghana, the Christian Health Association of Ghana (CHAG) has started to train religious leaders to address the stigma and lack of knowledge about HIV and TB that prevents people from getting tested and treated.

CHAG director Dr Peter Yeboah noted that churches have three public spaces: churches, schools and hospitals. They can all be key to reducing stigma, he stressed.

In Murenga’s own journey following her HIV diagnosis, the support of her pastor and church surprised her – and improved her quality of life. So she knows the difference religious leadership can make.

Addressing the religious leaders present she urged, “If you only use your platforms to address people’s fears, you can transform lives.”

As Ditiu concluded, “the people who are suffering need us to work together.“

Interfaith event: Faith Building Bridges

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