October 25, 2010
Observers say some HIV-positive Ugandan teenagers are abandoning their antiretroviral treatment, believing religion can cure them of the virus.
Baylor College of Medicine's Children's Foundation Uganda treats more than 4,000 HIV-positive children, 750 of whom are teenagers. "Over the years, a growing trend of adolescents and caregivers have withdrawn from treatment with a belief of having been cured of HIV/AIDS in church," said Cissy Ssuna, the foundation's counselor coordinator.
Ssuna cited the case of a 17-year-old girl who has lived with her aunt and uncle since her parents' deaths several years ago. The girl, who spends all her free time watching gospel programs on television, reading the Bible or praying in church, said she was cured by God six months ago, said Ssuna. She has stopped her ARV treatment and regularly gives testimonies about her "healing."
Ssuna said the practice is more common among Pentecostal churches, noting that while teens often make the decision to stop treatment on their own, peer pressure typically is involved, too.
By the time the youths return to treatment, it may be too late. A 2007 study by Makerere University's Infectious Disease Institute found that of 558 respondents undergoing HIV treatment, 1.2 percent had discontinued care because they believed they had been spiritually healed. While four out of the six eventually restarted their ARVs, three required more expensive, second-line salvage treatment.
Mary Kiwanuka, who has an HIV-positive teenage daughter, said television evangelists exert considerable influence. "These children are exposed to too much television, which shows people being healed," she said.
Bishop Dunstan Bukenya of Mityana advised HIV-positive believers to continue their ARV therapy, even as they pray for healing.