HIV Services in the Time of COVID: Faith-Based Organizations are Adapting in Cameroon and Haiti
By Erika Henderson, CCIH Communications and Advocacy Intern and Doug Fountain, CCIH Executive Director
As we prepared to mark World AIDS Day 2021, CCIH reached out to members in Cameroon and Haiti to understand how COVID has altered the course of faith-based initiatives to prevent and treat HIV. We spoke with leaders at Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services (CBCHS) about services through their diverse network of health facilities in Cameroon. We also spoke with the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB) about HIV programs and services in Haiti, including their work with faith leaders.
In both cases, leaders have struggled and adapted to keep up programs and services to realize global goals, namely that 95 percent of children and adults living with HIV know their status, 95 percent of children and adults living with HIV receive treatment, and 95 percent of children and adults on treatment achieve viral suppression. They mobilize faith communities and faith leaders as strong champions for these services, and they coordinate with health services and health authorities.
Global experience working on programs and services to prevent and treat HIV transmission underscore the essential value of faith communities as allies. Faith leaders help reduce stigma and increase the expectation that communities can effectively prevent and manage disease. These are vital messages of hope for our world in a time of COVID.
CBCHS: A Holistic Approach to HIV in Cameroon
CCIH member Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services CBCHS is dedicated to offering care from a holistic and Christian perspective. CBCHS’s Care and Prevention Program provides HIV prevention, treatment for people with HIV, and spiritual and psychosocial support for those affected by the virus.
HIV/AIDS in the Midst of COVID
COVID-19 threatens the progress CBCHS has made through their HIV programs. “COVID caused disruption in the delivery of essential health care and treatment services, including HIV and AIDS services,” says Dr. Denis Bambo Ndzibidtu, Senior Administrator, Office of the Director of Health Services, Banso Baptist Hospital in Cameroon. For example, people are hesitant to attend routine services in fear of catching COVID. “Local and international guidance recommends that HIV clients should avoid as much as possible a long stay in the hospital if not necessary,” Dr. Bambo says. On top of these struggles, he said supply chain gaps in obtaining ARVs (antiretrovirals) are preventing adults and children from receiving treatment they need.
Advantages of Faith-Based Organizations
These disruptions make protecting progress in HIV work more important than ever. CBCHS is now also tasked with delivering care to get the HIV epidemic under control in a way that keeps health care providers safe in the face of the COVID pandemic. Fortunately, CBCHS’s faith-based roots give them an advantage in overcoming these challenges. “Being an FBO is highly rated amongst other agencies involved in the fight against HIV,” Dr. Denis Bambo Ndzibidtu, Senior Administrator, Office of the Director of Health Services, Banso Baptist Hospital explains. CBCHS’s stability, faithfulness, and skilled nature in dealing with people living with HIV are all contributing factors to their well-respected reputation. Additionally, CBCHS uses counselors, many who double as chaplains, to both comfort and bring hope to people, which adds to the holistic nature of their HIV response.
CBCHS’s position as a faith-based organization gives them a strong opportunity to engage the community in their work. CBCHS’s community initiative for AIDS care and prevention program focuses on “community education by working with local NGOs, community-based organizations, associations of PLHIV (People Living with HIV), churches, traditional rulers, local councils, and other community stakeholders,”’ Dr. Bambo says. CBCHS’s faith roots have allowed them to build strong connections throughout the community and the country.
CMMB Partners with Health Systems in Haiti in the HIV Response
CCIH member the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB) works to make communities stronger by providing long-term medical programs and initiatives. CMMB’s current program in Haiti is called ALESIDA2, with ALESIDA meaning “go away AIDS” in Creole. This program focuses on HIV prevention and treatment. “CMMB is an implementing partner working with healthcare systems to provide technical assistance and increased capacity to ensure that they can reach targets set by the CDC to move towards epidemic control,” says Dr. Romaine Nephtalie, Technical Director of the ALESIDA2 Project, CMMB.
Facing Pandemic Challenges
CMMB faces additional challenges in their HIV work due to COVID-19. “One of our priorities is to ensure continuity of care in the face of a crisis,” says Dr. Nephtalie. CMMB is working in an increasingly difficult setting, making it more important than ever to “create patient-centered care, and reach out to communities to ensure that they get services in a timely manner, and maintain the quality of these services,” says Dr. Nephtalie.
During the last two years, CMMB increased emphasis on community outreach. They have maintained a retention rate of 95 percent among active patients, even despite the pandemic. They expanded community ARV delivery to ensure that they can reach people in different communities. This approach benefited 40 percent of patients by providing viral tests to be delivered in the community. “CMMB’s performance is improving, despite COVID,” says Dr. Nephtalie. Initially, people were afraid to take HIV viral tests in the community for fear of contracting COVID. CMMB helped to combat this fear through education, so that people no longer fear taking the viral tests.
Success in Faith-Based Communities
CMMB has reached faith leaders through its FCI (Faith-based Community Initiative) over the past two years. This initiative works with and trains faith leaders to bring about messages of hope, and uses the respect and trust faith leaders have in their communities to engage people. This strategy helps CMMB reach a larger population. “During the last two years, more than 2,000 faith leaders were trained through these projects” Dr. Nephtalie says. During these training sessions, CMMB offers HIV tests so those who are willing can find out their status. Keeping in touch with faith leaders to encourage them to share information about HIV with their churches and congregations “gives CMMB more engagement to fight the stigma around HIV, and create better inclusion,” Dr. Nephtalie concludes.
The experience of faith-based organizations such as the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services and the Catholic Medical Mission Board provide a roadmap that others can follow as they are inspired by faith and also committed to evidence-based practice. There is much we will learn in coming years about how we can apply these lessons to address COVID and other pandemics that arise.
Resources about HIV/AIDS and the Faith Community
See CCIH Resources on HIV/AIDS for more about faith-based organizations and their work on HIV/AIDS, as well as resources about the importance of engaging faith leaders and communities in addressing HIV/AIDS.