Entries with tag hiv .

Health and Human Rights in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS: A Modern-Day Civil Rights Struggle

As Orthodox Christians, we are charged with viewing people of all races equally, both under God as well as societally. This stems not from political opinion, but rather our shared view that we are all created in His image.

This year, as we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we are reminded of his tremendous work towards racial equality and the sacrifices he made for civil rights. When evaluating the impact he has had on the world, we must not become complacent. As Archbishop Iakovos of blessed memory articulated in his explanation for being in Selma and marching with Rev. King: “We cannot be Christians in name, and not in spirit and action.” We must be knowledgeable and prepared to act while injustice endures. This is felt quite vividly in the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. And while HIV/AIDS is not often associated with the civil rights movement, the racial components of the crisis renders it a crucial part of the path to realizing Dr. King’s vision.

Since the first cases of AIDS began to spread in the early 1980s, significant improvements have been made around the world in both the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS.

Despite the advances, many argue that HIV/AIDS is a civil rights issue, centered on the fact that it disproportionately affects the African-American community compared to its share of the overall population. African-Americans represent about 12% of the U.S. population, yet they make up approximately 44% of new infections of HIV.[1] Similarly, they account for 49% of new AIDS diagnoses, both demonstrating a lingering impact of the disease that isn’t shared by all demographic groups. As of 2013, there were more than 1.1 million individuals living with HIV/AIDS in the U.S.; alarmingly, 506,000 of those were African American!

This trend does not seem to be improving. While the overall number of infections and deaths have decreased, a disparity remains and will endure unless we provide the appropriate medical aid to this population. In the U.S., the numbers for new cases of HIV/AIDS tends to be more prevalent in a few specific groups, for a variety of reasons. For example, the LGBT community, individuals living in rural communities, and those of lower socioeconomic status all have higher rates of infection than the general population.[2] Nonetheless, the African-American population intersects with all these population subsets, yet we do not see similar rates of infection.

Dr. Donna McCree, Associate Director for Health Equity of the CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, suggests a disappointing, yet insightful explanation for this phenomenon. She describes a so-called ‘perfect storm’ of economic and cultural barriers that have led to the lagging and disproportionately high rates of infection among the African-American population.

Things like higher incarceration rates, lower medical coverage rates, and substance abuse all impact contraction. Similarly, contracting the disease has a negative impact on a person’s socioeconomic status by constraining their ability to be employed and earn income.[3]  For example, 45% of individuals with HIV/AIDS are unemployed[4] which, coupled with the remaining stigmas faced at both familial and clinical levels, can discourage individuals from seeking treatment, further exacerbating the problem.

Civil rights have maintained a central place in the Church’s message of unconditional love during the latter half of the 20th century and continues to serve as a catalyst for mutual understand, respect and love among all people. Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America summed up our mission in a 1963 statement:

But the Christians of America should feel that they have a special mandate to work for equal rights for all. We are challenged to prove that the Legions of Christ can, in His Name, uphold these rights wherever and whenever they are endangered. Christian love is not a semantic symbol. It is a commandment to which we must conform our actions as Christians and strive in every way to make a reality, consistent with the will of God which was expressed by His Son Jesus Christ when He said, Love ye one another.

This message remains our focus today. Individuals with HIV/AIDS continue to be possess the image of God, and we are mandated to overcome our own shortcomings and love them, have mercy on them, and pray for them. True to Iakovos’ vision in 1963, the Orthodox Church is not only a supporter of civil rights as an idea and political theory, it seeks to put into practice the love of Christ in her own work. Humanitarian organizations such as IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities), which partners with local churches around the world to serve the needs of those most vulnerable, and FOCUS (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve), which offers adults and children access to healthcare through their medical centers, have helped the Church and her communicants answer the call to love one another as children of God, irrespective of our racial or ethnic differences.


Anthony Balouris is a Fellow at the UN for the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (un.goarch.org)

The Archdiocese is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization at the United Nations through the Department of Public Information (UN DPI) and has General Consultative Status under the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ESOSCO). It has been actively working at the UN for 30 years.

[1] http://files.kff.org/attachment/fact-sheet-black-americans-and-hiv-aids

[2] http://www.ebony.com/wellness-empowerment/aids-2012-new-data-show-black-gay-men-face-worlds-highest-risk-of-hiv#axzz2JxYL2v1J

[3] http://www.ebony.com/news-views/the-state-of-hivaids-in-black-america-405#axzz4VEXkJse0

[4] http://www.apa.org/pi/ses/resources/publications/hiv-aids.aspx



HIV/AIDS Research: An Orthodox Christian Response

As we prepare to receive the Sacrament of Holy Unction on Holy Wednesday evening, two articles in recent editions of The New York Times addressing breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS research came to mind precisely because the Sacrament of Holy Unction is understood as the Sacrament of Healing.

On March 4th and March 5th the newspaper reported that scientists have made significant progress in their search for a vaccine and a cure for HIV. With regard to a vaccine, researchers reported the results of an experiment wherein monkeys were injected with long-lasting AIDS drugs. The monkeys that received the injections were protected against infection for weeks. Monkeys that received monthly injections of antiretroviral drugs were completely (100%) free of infection after exposure to the virus. Researchers believe that a single shot every three months could work just as well as a monthly injection. A very small controlled human trial is expected to start later this year in the United States, South Africa, Malawi and Brazil.

Since 2010, it has been known that healthy people taking a small daily dose of antiretroviral drugs, a procedure known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PreP), can achieve 90% protection against infection. Unfortunately, protection against the virus decreased almost completely once patients missed even a single dosage. If researchers are able to achieve a significant degree of prevention via a monthly (or even quarterly) injection it might be possible to maintain pre-exposure prophylaxis while reducing factors that may lead participants to miss or refuse daily oral drugs (stigma, fear, and basic human forgetfulness). Click here for the full story.

The next day, March 5th, “The Times” reported that a second infant born with H.I.V. was apparently cured of the virus through aggressive drug treatment. The child—a girl born in Long Beach, CA—was treated with an antiretroviral cocktail consisting of AZT, 3TC and nevirapine. A similar case was reported last year; an infected child born in Mississippi was also aggressively treated with antiretroviral drugs and is now 3 years old and still virus-free. A clinical trial in which 50 infected infants will be treated is set to begin within three months. Click here for the full story.

In just a few decades, HIV/AIDS research has yielded incredible results. Whereas in the past people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS would not live for long, today, people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS are often treated as patients with a chronic (albeit fatal) illness. Since being diagnosed with HIV in 1991, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr. speaks of “living with AIDS” rather than “dying of AIDS.”

When AIDS was first discovered we knew very little about the disease. Many, for instance, believed that this was a disease that only affected individuals of a particular gender, race or sexual orientation. Moreover, physicians were unaware that unborn children could contract the virus from infected mothers during pregnancy, labor, delivery or breastfeeding. Such misconceptions led to countless infections and deaths.

Our lack of understanding of HIV/AIDS also led many faith-based communities to reconsider their internal practices. This was especially an issue for most Christians with regard to the distribution of the Holy Eucharist. In the Orthodox Church, where Communion is received using a common spoon, some feared that the disease could be transmitted by partaking in the Common Cup. We can only imagine how this might have caused many to fear receiving Holy Communion. Among other suggestions, some supported the introduction of disposable cups and spoons as a way to ease people's fears and to decrease the chance of infection.

Fortunately, such measures were never introduced nor were they necessary. They were not necessary, on the one hand, because the disease is not transmitted through the sharing of food and liquids, and on the other hand, and most importantly, no one can contract a disease through the Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

There is no telling what the future holds. We hope and pray that God will inspire the work of researchers so that we may eradicate HIV/AIDS one day. However, until such time, it is important to remember that individuals with the disease continue being images of God. They are not “sick people,” they are not “sinful,” or “abominations." They are our brothers and sisters, worthy of the same love and mercy that we expect from our Lord. There is no room for judgment or condemnation, otherwise what we risk losing is not just our physical health but also our souls.

Until a cure or vaccine is discovered and becomes widely available, it is important that we consider the efficacy of various efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, especially in those regions where the disease has reached epidemic levels. The sociocultural realities on the ground as well as proven effectiveness of various efforts will often help determine which preventative measures should be utilized. Among the many efforts used include sex-education, increasing accessibility to testing, needle exchange programs, and the distribution condoms. There are both advocates and critics of these and other efforts, and perhaps we can address these further in a later post. But, what we can say now is that it is absolutely essential for us, as Orthodox Christians, to insist that our Orthodox Christian principles be given serious consideration in our homes but also in the public square. When used alone, we know that there is no single measure of defense that is perfect. Therefore, it behooves us to embrace those efforts proven to lower the morbidity and mortality rates of HIV/AIDS while also embracing our timeless Orthodox Christian values.

Of course, the Church’s teachings about human sexuality has a place in the discussion around HIV/AIDS. However, the principles of faith, hope and love, as well as the Church's enduring message of forgiveness, mercy, repentance and reconcilliation are even more invaluable in the effort to confront HIV/AIDS.

It is truly a blessing for us to receive the Sacrament of Holy Unction, the Sacrament of Healing. By healing, however, we need to recall that what is meant goes far beyond overcoming physical maladies, but more importantly, overcoming sin and death.

Archimandrite Nathanael Symeonides is the Director of the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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