Pope Highlights U.N. and Catholic Push for AIDS-Free Childhood

As the international community marks World AIDS Day, Catholic groups continue to take a lead role in the global campaign to eradicate infections of unborn children.

Pope Benedict XVI has highlighted the United Nation’s Global Plan to eradicate HIV infections of unborn children in their mother’s wombs by 2015 — and the key role Catholic health and aid groups are playing in the campaign.

The Pope drew attention to the issue at his Nov. 28 general audience at the Vatican, where he said, “My thoughts turn in particular to the large number of children who contract the virus from their mothers each year, despite the treatments which exist to prevent its transmissions.” The Holy Father timed his remarks to promote the U.N.’s World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

“This is a truly timely message,” said Karen Moul, spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ primary agency providing support for those with AIDS or those, like the AIDS orphans, impacted by it. “We are all excited at the U.N. proposal for eliminating mother-child transmission of AIDS by 2015,” she added.

And just as Catholic organizations have provided a quarter of all care in the world for people with AIDS over the last 30 years, said Moul, so will they continue to play a leading role in preventing mother-child transmission.

Some 34 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, according to UNAIDS, and 3.4 million of those are children under 15, infected by their mothers in the womb.

That is the bad news. The good news, Moul said, is that the anti-AIDS alliance of faith and health organizations now has the capacity to achieve the U.N.’s “The Global Plan Towards Elimination of New HIV Infections in Children by 2015 and Keeping Their Mothers Alive,” announced only last year.

Central to achieving this objective is the prevention of what is known as “mother-to-child transmission” of HIV/AIDS (MTCT).

“We know the way to prevent MTCT,” said Moul. “All we need is the will.”


How It Works

The successful approach was discovered early in the last decade, when it was found that early anti-retroviral drug treatment for AIDS-infected young women reduced the level of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to such low levels that it was not passed on to their children in the womb.

What has happened in the meantime — largely thanks to President George W. Bush’s 2003 PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) initiative — is the establishment in the countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, largely in sub-Saharan Africa, of a vast and complex network comprising early diagnosis, delivery of ever-cheapening drug treatment that restores those infected to a near-normal level of health, support for infected children and those orphaned by the disease and campaigns to reduce infection rates.

American organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Medical Mission Board were early leaders in the treatment, alongside other Catholic and Protestant agencies from North America and Europe, said Msgr. Bob Vitillo, who is special AIDS-HIV adviser to Caritas Internationalis and to its 20-member subgroup, the Catholic HIV AIDS Network (CHAN).

“Catholic organizations and orders are major providers of all AIDS treatment in the world,” Msgr. Vitillo affirmed. “And while government organizations concentrate their efforts in the population centers, Catholic groups are to be found working in more rural and isolated areas where they reach the poorest people.”

The CRS’s Karen Moul has seen the results firsthand. “I recently met the first lady treated for AIDS at the St. Camillus Mission Hospital in Nyanza, Kenya, as a chronic disease 10 years ago,” said Moul. “Before that, they were simply treating the dying. But because of the new drugs, Maresa was able to become healthy enough to return to her family, to go back to school and become a teacher,and finally to have a child."

Added Moul, “I met her little girl. She was rambunctious and full of life.” And HIV/AIDS-free.


Trust and Local Expertise

Moul said that some Catholic orders have been in Africa and other AIDS-affected areas, alongside other Christian missionaries, for over a century, building trust and local expertise that is especially useful when recruiting local volunteers.

In many parts of Africa, these volunteers fill the gap when women diagnosed with HIV/AIDS fail to return to distant medical clinics to receive their next supply of medication, perhaps because they are in mourning for a family member (and forbidden by custom to travel) or perhaps because their husbands won’t let them. Volunteers track down the women and deliver the medication, keeping the mother healthy, the family intact and the next child AIDS-free.

At the same time, said Moul, “CRS is turning its attention to husbands and providing programs aimed at changing their behavior to their wives.”

Meanwhile, in Haiti, the worst AIDS-hit country in the Americas, the Catholic Medical Mission Board is training local volunteers to identify infection early on. Especially with young women, early diagnosis brings early and regular treatment.

“This means that person not only survives, but can lead a normal life,” said CMMB spokeswoman Barbara Wright. It also means more than 90% of the children of these Haitian women are born without HIV/AIDS.

CMMB has been sending general medical supplies and volunteers, as well as providing disease-specific programs, around the world for more than 100 years, said Wright.

“How can you not, as a Catholic and as a Christian, step up to help when people are suffering?” Wright asked. “It goes beyond fighting AIDS to ensuring healthy families.”

In Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam, the longstanding Catholic presence has made itself felt in the person of Father John Toai, who heads a medical and pastoral mission providing early treatment to young women with AIDS and to children, some infected, some orphaned and some both.

“They were abandoned and rejected by their families and ignored by the government,” said Msgr. Vitillo of Caritas Internationalis. “Now, their extended families are taking them in, and the government is waking up to its responsibility.”


No Quick Fixes

Catholic organizations have not only delivered the latest medical treatment to the most remote areas, said Msgr. Vitillo; they have also shown the secular AIDS establishment the folly of its “risk-reduction” approach to prevention, with its emphasis on condom distribution to prevent infection to the virtual exclusion of behavioral change.

“There is a lack of understanding among some governments and some staff [of AIDS-fighting organizations] of the need for people to form responsible relationships based on treating others and themselves with personal dignity,” said Msgr. Vitillo. “Quick fixes that ignore this don’t work.”

Pope Benedict XVI highlighted the conflict between Catholic thinking and that of the secular AIDS establishment in the spring of 2009, when he said that unless Africans changed their sexual behavior, programs promoting condom use would increase AIDS infection, not reduce it.

Though the Pope’s comments were made in the context of Uganda’s successful “ABC” program — which cut the country’s infection rate by two-thirds by stressing abstinence before marriage and fidelity within marriage ahead of condom use — he was mercilessly condemned by developed-world news media and commentators for his allegedly “moralistic” approach.

“Now we are seeing Africans reducing the number of their sexual partners,” said Msgr. Vitillo, “and infection rates are coming down.”


Local Oversight

Where HIV/AIDS is most prevalent, in sub-Saharan Africa, the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference has been a leader not only in promoting behavior change, but in providing treatment for those with AIDS and support for AIDS orphans.

U.S. government AIDS funding has been transferred from CRS (which managed a massive $700-million PEPFAR grant over five years) and from other agencies based in the developed world to indigenous groups such as the southern bishops' conference.

It’s not really a sharp break from the past, though. Local staff in many cases will simply change employers. And the expertise CRS has built up will be offered to the home-grown agencies on a consultancy basis.

Moul said the campaign against MTCT is producing significant results: While 330,000 children were born AIDS-infected last year, “this is down 24% over two years and 43% lower than in 2003."

Can MTCT largely be eradicated in two more years? “It’s a very, very important goal,” said Msgr. Vitillo cautiously. “I know progress is being made every day. I expect much, much more.”

Added Msgr. Vitillo, “I’m especially hopeful now that the international health organizations and governments are realizing there are no quick fixes.”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.


Donations for programs combatting HIV-AIDS can be made to:

Catholic Relief Services

Caritas Internationalis

The Catholic Medical Mission Board