Catholics Provide More Than 25% Of HIV/AIDS Care Worldwide

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese, 
17 Jul 2014

In 1980s, St Vincents Hospital Darlinghurst carried out the Sisters of Charity mission offering compassion and palliative care to those dying of AIDS (FOTO)

Catholic hospitals, doctors, nurses and the Church’s international aid and development agency, Caritas Internationalis not only care for more than 25% of the estimated 38 million living with AIDS/HIV worldwide, but have been at the forefront in the battle since the first cases were reported back in the early 1980s.

“Catholics have been there since the very beginning but many in the world don’t realise this and perceive Catholics as people who only say ‘no’ to the use of condoms or affairs outside of marriage. They don’t see us in terms of our more than 30 years of commitment to those with HIV/AIDS,” says American-born Monsignor Robert Vitillo, who for the past 27 years has been the full-time Special Advisor on HIV and AIDS to Caritas Internationalis, the aid and development arm of the Church.

“From the start Catholics have always believed that it is only significant and serious change in behaviour that will stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, rather than quick fixes such as the distribution of condoms or clean needles,” he says.

Although the Church took heavy criticism for speaking out against the use of condoms to control the world wide HIV/AIDS epidemic, Mgr Vitillo who is also Head of the Caritas Internationalis Delegation to the United Nations, says the Church has been validated with increasing evidence showing behavioural changes are key to preventing the spread of the virus.

Mgr Robert Vitillo in Australia to attend the Catholic Pre HIV and AIDS Conference and next week’s International AIDS Conference

“Within the UN more and more attention now focuses on abstinence and a reduction of the number of sexual partners,” he says and cites nations such as Thailand, Uganda and Kenya where very high levels of HIV infections have been sharply reduced as a result of people limiting the number of their sexual partners and avoiding drugs and needles.

In Australia for the next 10 days, Mgr Vitillo will be one of the speakers at tomorrow’s three-day Catholic HIV and AIDS Pre-Conference in Melbourne and next week will be among the thousands of national and international delegates at the world’s 20th International AIDS Conference which is being held in Australia for the first time.

With delegates arriving from every corner for next week’s International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Caritas Australia, St Vincent’s Health Australia and Caritas Internationalis joined forces to sponsor a Catholic HIV and AIDS Pre-Conference.

More than 100 delegates from national and international Catholic agencies along with doctors, scientists, advocates and Catholic ministries working with those living with HIV/AIDS will attend the Pre-Conference which begins tomorrow to exchange ideas, explore the intersection between faith and science and address best practice in spiritual and pastoral care, ethical issues as well as a worrying drop in funding for many faith-based care agencies.

Catholic agencies and hospitals such as St Vincents led the way in care and compassion for those living with HIV and AIDS

In addition to workshops, panel discussions and forums, the Catholic HIV and AIDS Pre-Conference will feature outstanding speakers including former Ambassador to the Vatican, Tim Fischer; Chair of the Catholic HIV and AIDS Network, Fr Rick Bauer; Founder of Cambodia’s Maryknoll, Sr Maria Leonor Montiel MM who cares for the poor who have been evicted from their homes including those with HIV and AIDS; Sr Barbara Staley MSC from the Cabrini Ministries in Swaziland; Professor Sheila Tlou, Director of UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern and Southern Africa and Minister of Health of the Republic of Botswana; and Steve Kraus, Director of UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Asia and the Pacific.

Mgr Vitillo, who knows each of the delegates attending the Pre-Conference says he is particularly looking forward to the Plenary between four of the world’s leading Catholic scientists to be held on Sunday morning, 20 July.

“They will be talking about faith and science and debunk the popular myth that if you are a good scientist you cannot be a person of faith. Not only do these four widely acclaimed scientists believe in God but believe even more strongly because of their research, convinced it had to have taken a supreme intelligent being to set up the processes they and other scientists are uncovering,” he says.

Caritas tackles the spread of HIV in PNG with a proactive program of education, testing and treatment

The scientists who will take part in the Plenary are Professor David Cooper, Director of the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society and one of Australia’s leading HIV clinicians; Professor Julio Montaner, Professor of Medicine at the University of British Columbia; Dr Stefano Vella of the Governing Council of the International AIDS Society, HIV and antiretroviral drug researching as well as serving as scientific advisor for the Italian Cooperation (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) in African countries where he helps set up programs to combat HIV/AIDS.

Just as Mgr Vitillo and Caritas Internationalis has been involved with the care of a large number of the world’s estimated 38 million men and women living with HIV/AIDS, St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst has also led the way in the care and treatment of those with HIV/AIDS. In October 1982, doctors at St Vincent’s diagnosed the nation’s first case of AIDS and as a direct result, established what is now regarded as one of the world’s leading centres of immunological research.

St Vincent’s in Darlinghurst, which was founded by the Sisters of Charity more than 150 years ago, was the first hospital to treat HIV/AIDS patients. The hospital and its specialised clinic led the way in the compassionate care of the dying and their loved ones during Australia’s AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 90s.

The government also gave the green light to the first needle exchange program.

However while much has been done in the way of care and medication for HIV sufferers the statistics here in Australia are stubbornly and alarmingly high.

Mgr Robert Vitillo is Special Advisor on HIV and AIDS for Caritas Internationalis and Head of the International Delegation to the UN in Geneva

In fact they are still at a 20-year high with an estimated 15 percent of Australians with HIV don’t actually know they have the virus.

Researchers believe younger  men today are unaware of the early days of the AIDS epidemic and have drifted away from testing.

Many from St Vincent’s involved in the care of those living with HIV and those leading the charge to find even more effective immunodeficiency treatments and antiretroviral drugs will attend both the three-day Catholic PreConference and next week’s International AIDS Conference.

Convened every two years, among those attending the International AIDS conference are former US President Bill Clinton and artist, activist and founder of Live AID, Sir Bob Geldof.

But according to Mgr Vitillo the major topic at the International Conference set to make headlines will be the first-ever discussions about “the end of AIDS.”

“This does not mean that AIDS will be eradicated,” he cautions. “Unlike small pox there is no vaccination against AIDS or HIV and with the ability of the virus to keep changing, it is unlikely there ever will be,” he says.

He also warns that despite all the research and efforts worldwide, once a person is infected with HIV there is no effective medication that will completely eliminate the virus.

Monsignor Robert Vitillo can see the day with HIV and AIDS are no longer a public threat but down graded to a public emergency

“But we are beginning to talk about HIV/AIDS not as a public health threat but as a public health emergency,” he says.

While the statistics are still causing grave concern here in some countries overseas HIV is decreasing thanks to behavioural changes and the tireless work of many Catholic agencies who frequently educate and provide health care to as many as 70% of some of the world’s poorest communities, but thanks to advocacy by the Church and NGOs with the world’s pharmaceutical conglomerates, antiretroviral drugs are now available at an affordable cost in the Third World.

“Treatment with these drugs used to cost as much as $33,000 and only the very rich in Western nations could afford them. The price has since come down and as a result of advocacy, a person in Africa or other developing nations can pay as little $100. This is still a lot of money for people who earn almost nothing but with sponsors and international funds, we are able to help with this cost,” he says.

The other great success of treatment for HIV that is helping stem the rate of infection are today’s antiretroviral drugs. If taken early on by those diagnosed with HIV, it has been proven that as many as 96% of those on antriretroviral therapy will not infect their partners with the virus.


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