One thing we’ve learned from doing AIDS relief in developing nations is that you can’t just build a clinic or send medicine and then wait for the problem to go away. Medical treatment is vital, but it’s not the whole solution. There are deeply-ingrained attitudes and perspectives that need to change – attitudes toward AIDS victims, their families, and even chronically ill people in general.
Mike Henry, a Cross Catholic project officer, recently returned from Haiti, where he met with our ministry partners to talk about how they can better serve the needs of HIV/AIDS victims. One of those ministries is Rainbow House, a shelter for children infected with HIV or orphaned by AIDS. We are helping them relocate to a new, larger facility on an eight-acre tract of land.
Mike described to us the stigma that AIDS carries in Haitian culture. The disease is often blamed on black magic, and those who catch it are looked down upon and isolated from society, to suffer and die alone. Ignorance about the disease leads to fears that you can catch it by breathing the same air or touching the belongings of someone who has it, or by being bitten by a mosquito. AIDS orphans are abandoned in hospitals or left to fend for themselves on the streets.
The stigma brings other complications, too. AIDS patients trying to keep their problem secret don’t want health workers visiting their home. At-risk men, women, and children should be made to feel as comfortable as possible with getting tested and seeking help, but this can’t happen without a change of attitude in their neighbors. That’s why we stress the importance of education.
At Rainbow House, this is done through peer-to-peer workshops and youth events that dispel myths about AIDS, so that communities will learn to accept infected children with love and compassion. Similarly, our Riara Health Project in Kenya invites patients to one-on-one and group teaching sessions on health and nutrition; and our Itimpi Home-Based Care project in Zambia organizes community support groups to curb risky behaviors that lead to the spread of the disease.
The Cross Catholic approach to the AIDS crisis is more than damage control. We aim to change hearts and minds, to bring about a better, healthier future.