By BENEDICT TEMBO
A UNITED Nations Population Fund (UNPF) survey in Zambia shows that 80 per cent of all HIV/AIDS infections are transmitted through heterosexual contact.
The survey says out of 100 new infections, 71 are estimated to arise through sex with non-regular partners while 21 per cent of new infections are estimated to occur in people who report that they have only one sexual partner, which signifies a great risk even for those who are faithful.
Other factors apart from low levels of male circumcision, mostly common in North-Western and Western provinces, are gender-based discrimination, migration and socio-cultural norms.
“Many organisations have sprung up to fight the epidemic through efforts meant to minimize infection rates and devise ways within existing structures on how to handle already infected,” according to Mr. Duah Owusu-Sarfo, UNPF country representative.
Mr. Owusu-Sarfo said the church has entered the fray and is now in the battlefront.
“One such church is the Gospel Outreach Fellowship, which has broken the silence in fighting the epidemic,” he said in a speech delivered for him by HIV/AIDS programme officer, Mrs Florence Mulenga at the Family and Friends Health Day on October 18.
The Family Health Day was organised by the Young Couples Fellowship of Go Centre in Lusaka with the blessing of the Senior Pastor, Revered Helmut Reutter. The idea behind the initiative is to promote voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) as a way of preventing HIV transmission and de-stigmatise HIV and put a human face to it through talking about it in an informal way.
The one day event which was also used to promote VCT as an entry point to care, support and treatment and to provide benefits of VCT, attracted about 1,000 people – exceeding the 600 which was budgeted for.
Living Waters Church sent 72 members, 35 of whom tested at this event which was staged to challenge pastors to take the lead and testing for HIV and to promote the use of VCT as a good healthy practice for children and youths.
The Family and Friends Health Day marked exactly three months since the last Family Day in June 2009.
The Kalusha Bwalya Foundation sent three football teams to entertain the participants from Chawama, Kanyama and Chibolya. The players also attended the group counselling.
“I wish to invite the church to rise to these challenges through its moral and religious teachings especially in the area of abstinence,” Mr. Owusu-Sarfo said.
He said the church’s role apart from the conventional moral and religious teachings should be encouraging their members to go for voluntary counselling and teaching (VCT).
He says the low levels – 15.4 per cent – of Zambians who have gone for VCT were unacceptable.
Yet, Zambia is one of the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with a high HIV prevalence of 14.3 percent among the adult population 15-49 with a projection of 82,681 (59 percent women and 41 percent men) new infections expected to occur this year.
“Further research has revealed that, currently about 226 new adult infections occur per day. These are serious and alarming figures. We can’t afford to be silent anymore, we need to act as a matter of urgency, we need to speak out in our churches, communities and families,” Mr. Owusu-Sarfo said.
In order to access various ranges of treatment medical personnel ought to know their HIV status through VCT.
“It is my sincere hope that more families will use this opportunity to test and be able to take control of their lives so that the church and communities at large can be healthy and be able to make a meaningful contribution towards the social-economic and spiritual development of our country,” he said.
Go Centre was the ideal venue for the Family Health Day as the church, through its social wing – Chreso Ministries Centre for Anti-retroviral (ARVs) and HIV Counselling and Testing (VCT).
The Church presently provides care and treatment (ARV) to over 8,000 people based in Lusaka , 2,000 in Kabwe and another 2,000 in Livingstone.
Levy Phiri, vice chairperson of the Young Couples Fellowship, said Go Centre has different fellowship groups which meet once every month and the Church encourages these groups to put the topic of HIV/AIDS as a priority.
“The Senior Pastor Helmut Reutter was invited by the young couples for their fellowship and HIV/AIDS in our homes, was included as one of their topics of discussion.
The director of Chreso Ministries (Pastor Helmut Reutter) gave a very moving presentation on the need to have healthy families, emphasizing the need to ensure that children and everyone else in the family access such health services as HIV testing together,” Mr. Phiri said.
Thus on 28 June 2009, Go Centre had their first ever family day where all the members were encouraged to bring extended families to Go Centre for a second service that was dedicated to HIV information delivery and the importance of HIV testing.
The service was conducted by Chreso clinic. About 150 people came to attend and 42 ended up having an HIV test
“This success story could also have been attributed to the fact that our leader, the Senior Pastor and his wife were the first to test for HIV and this gave an encouragement to the entire congregation. The event was so successful that churches around our centre started asking for another opportunity so that they can also participate,” Mr. Phiri said.
This prompted the Young Couples Fellowship to put up a bigger act on October 18, attracting 1000 people and 256 people tested. “With our approach on group testing, we believe if they get the information right, two is a crowd. There were lot of young teenagers who could not test because they did not come with their parents, there was age restriction on VCT but they themselves were willing to test,” Mr. Phiri said.
Some people had different responsibilities in organising the event and turned out last to test, hence queues were long, some didn't get a chance to test due to time factor
“We also understand that the UN can help us with a constant and sustainable supply of condoms. We are encouraged that our own senior Pastor (Helmut Reutter) has permitted the use of condoms among married people for various purposes ranging from prevention to family planning,” Mr. Phiri said
He said: “Young couples of Go Centre were very grateful for the UNFPA support to the Family and Friends Health Day. It takes great responsibility to find the value of an event which will help with the people’s morality.
“The UNFPA country representative Mr Duah Owusu-Sarfo must be commended by all faith-based organisations and Government for realising that, faith-based organisations in Zambia account for the majority of the population and sensitising them will greatly improve on the percentage of people going for VCT.”
He said Pastor Reutter's decision to encourage people to go in groups of families and friends for VCT must be supported by all.
“People get encouraged by seeing others test and it has already started showing good results with the prior event. Parents have a responsibility to take the whole family including dependants and infants for testing. Pastor Reutter did not only preach about VCT but he took the whole congregations at Go Centre for testing and he was the first one to test with his wife showing good leadership.
Leaders have a lot of influence in society and if we want to see a bright future of our children they have to take the first step.