Preachers who promise divine healing have often been blamed for turning desperate HIV-positive people against their life-prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) medication and risking their health, but recent research suggests that religious beliefs may not be a barrier to treatment after all.
A survey published in the medical journal HIV Medicine in June found that strong religious beliefs about faith and healing among black Africans living in London were unlikely to act as a barrier to accessing HIV testing and ARV treatment. The 246 respondents described themselves as Christians, including Roman Catholics, and Muslims. Only 1.2 percent said they did not belong to a religion.
Black Africans are identified as a group most at risk of HIV infection by the UK Health Protection Agency, which reported in 2011 that of the estimated 47,000 heterosexuals living with HIV in the UK, 19,300 were African-born women and 9,900 were African-born men.
"Analysis found no relationship between religiousness (measured using frequency of attendance at religious services and religious attitudes or beliefs) and late HIV diagnosis, changes in CD4 count [a measure of immune strength] and viral load [the amount of virus in the blood] in the six months post-diagnosis or initiation of antiretroviral therapy," the authors said.
They did find that participants who attended religious services at least once a month were more likely to believe that "faith alone can cure HIV" than those who attended less frequently. Some 5 percent believed that taking ARVs implied a lack of faith in God, but these beliefs did not affect HIV testing or treatment.
The results reinforce previous African studies, which found that the decision to start treatment is usually based on the level of education and knowledge of ARVs, rather than religion.
In Africa, where religious organizations play a major role in providing care and support to people living with HIV, religious leaders encourage their community members to pray, but keep taking their medication.
"We encourage [HIV-positive] congregants to assemble for prayer as part of their therapy. They share stories, pray, and encourage each other to religiously stick to their medication," said Rev Macdonald Sembereka, national coordinator of the Malawi chapter of INERELA+ an international, interfaith network of religious leaders living with or personally affected by HIV.
Religious people living with HIV say prayer and fellowship help them adhere to their ARVs, which can often have very uncomfortable side effects, including dizziness, increased appetite and nausea.
"Even when we are not together, we constantly pray for each other because apart from the medicine we also need God's grace, and prayers inspire us to continue taking our drugs," said Florence Wekesa, an HIV-positive nurse and member of a health worker support group for people living with HIV in western Kenya's Busia District.
Sembereka said the belief in miraculous healing of HIV held by some religious people was born of stigma, which his organization was trying to fight by promoting spirituality and science as mutually beneficial. He noted that with increased treatment availability and knowledge about HIV, the influence of misleading religious leaders had reduced.
"Prayer and treatment are complementary,” he said. “We cannot wish away the efficiency of treatment when we have sustained scientific evidence that it works."