A couple of weeks ago the BBC published an article about the dangerous allegations of some churches that they are able to ‘heal’ people who are HIV positive through prayer (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-19656649). Shockingly the article reported that religious leaders at certain evangelical churches have told those with HIV they can stop taking their medication and that this appears to have caused the death of at least 3 people in the UK. Last year a Sky News reporter visited the SCOAN church based in Southwark, London and was similarly told that she could be cured of her HIV if she prayed and anointed with holy water. She was reassured that any unpleasant symptoms following the praying would be the HIV passing through her body (http://news.sky.com/story/903211/faith-healing-and-hiv-shatilas-story ).
Firstly, I want to say the notion that those who are HIV+ can stop taking their medication and can be cured through prayer and holy water is completely wrong and dangerous. Stopping HIV medication can have immediate negative side effects, most commonly damage to the liver, and should only be done in consultation with your doctor. Secondly, whilst it is important that LGBT and religious organisations work together to put together effective HIV prevention approaches, I think the limit should be drawn at religious organisations that are outwardly homo-/trans-phobic or those that are promising a cure of HIV and STIs. These groups cause misunderstanding about HIV and often increase hatred towards the LGBT community and damage relations between LGBT and religious groups.
You might be asking why people believe the claims that churches such as the SCOAN make. A recent article by opendemocracy sheds some light on the question stating that much of the popularity of HIV faith healing is in parts of the world where marginalised communities have limited access to healthcare and where there is a lack of knowledge about HIV. Another interesting factor they identify is the fact that pastors often speak English which carries great intellectual power and kudos, especially amongst the global poor and means that their claims are unlikely to be questioned (see http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/jessica-horn/accepted-mishaps-faith-healing-hiv-and-aids-responses). These factors might explain why faith healing is most popular amongst immigrants to the UK who from parts of the world where pastors have a high social status and whose assertions are likely to be believed.
Whatever the reasons it is important that such healing is not ignored. Left unregulated and unaddressed claims of faith healing can do a lot of damage to those that are HIV positive and on meds, and, just as importantly, they risk undermining the important work that HIV organisations are doing to increase knowledge and understanding of the virus and challenge stigmatisation. What’s your opinion of HIV faith healing? What action should be taken to stop churches that are making these claims? Do you know anyone personally that’s been to a church claiming to cure HIV?
The GMI partnership provides free sexual health services for HIV negative gay and bisexual men and trans folk in London. We offer counselling, mentoring and sexual health advice. See http://www.gmipartnership.org.uk/ or contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information.