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.