World AIDS Day, which will be recognized Thursday, will call attention to the approximately 35 million people worldwide living with the disease. Among the areas hardest hit is southern Africa – a region whose population is as much as 90 percent Christian.
Given the heavy influence of Christianity in regions most affected by AIDS, curing the AIDS pandemic may begin with the church community.
About 30 percent of the world’s population that lives with AIDS is found in the eleven southern Africa countries – whose citizens make up only about 2 percent of the world population.
Health organizations blame a number of factors for the disease’s prevalence in the region including poor preventative education, inability to afford and distribute medication and cultural obstacles.
Some of those cultural obstacles include messages from the Christian leaders and from local church pastors that contraception is amoral. Governments, some deeply rooted in religion, only add fuel to the pandemic’s fire.
Some southern African governments have stigmatized the disease, which has subsequently left a large portion of the population infected but unable to receive treatment.
The “overwhelming majority” of African AIDS infections are cause by unprotected sex from both genders, but especially in the sex worker and homosexual communities, according to the World Health Organization.
Governments and influential church groups may disagree with the lifestyle choices of some AIDS carriers, but without proper treatment the disease will spread both within and outside those communities.
The Zimbabwean government called for homosexuality to be criminalized earlier this month. Gay people in the country are unable to receive medication, yet the disease still spreads.
Sex workers travel to cities and towns of great commerce to find customers. Those workers in economically depressed towns are more likely to relax safety standards with customers because of their need for money.
The disease is commonly spread when rural residents visit towns and cities, contract the disease and pass it to townspeople upon their return.
Estimates say that more than three quarters of sex workers in some countries are infected with AIDS. That prevalence facilitates the disease’s spread throughout the region.
Take the small country of Swaziland as a microcosm of the region, albeit a country in more dire straits that its neighbors.
The country’s population is in danger of being completely wiped out. Over 50 percent of adults in their 20s and one in every four residents has AIDS. It is by far the highest rate for any country in the world. The average life expectancy is 32. Economic and agricultural growth has stopped.
Health organizations say Swaziland is in particular peril because of their culture. Over 80 percent of the population is Christian, but the culture traditionally rejects condom use and monogamy.
Instead, men are expected to marry multiple wives and women are expected to produce at least five children. Around 42 percent of pregnant women in the country are infected with AIDS.
"Our greatest challenge is stigma," Njongonkulu Ndungane, an esteemed South African pastor, told Christianity Today. "Stigma makes people afraid to talk about AIDS, makes those who are suffering into outcasts, and prevents people from wanting to know their status."
Until the disease is treated as a pandemic that affects human kind-not persecuted segments of the population-AIDS will continue to take lives and cripple communities. But according to Christian organizations, that change can start with local church communities, across the world, by eliminating stigma and helping areas in need.
Campaigns like evangelist Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse and Bono’s ONE are urging Christian communities to be proactive about AIDS relief. Both sight a 2001 poll that found less than 3 percent of evangelists planned to begin any AIDS-related campaigns.
The groups aim to educate communities about safe sex practices, provide medical treatment and introduce ways in which Christian leaders can affect communities.