Hundreds of worshippers from different churches are dying of HIV/Aids-related illnesses as their churches discourage them from taking anti-retroviral drugs and other related medication.
Apostolic and Pentecostal churches with their origins in West African countries now based in Zimbabwe have been cited as the major culprits.
This sad story came to the fore during the recent burial of Tambudzai Mazvihwa (not real name) of Banga Village in Shurugwi.
According to speakers during her burial, she had stopped taking her anti-retroviral medication and developed complications, which later caused her premature death.
“Parents and relatives, I think you are all aware that our daughter here was taking anti-retroviral drugs, but for the past five months she had stopped her medication on instructions from her church elders who had prescribed holy water instead of the pills. It is the holy water that has caused her death. Had she continued with her treatment, she would be living up to this day,” said an elderly headman during her burial.
Only a few villagers attended the burial and members of her church did not attend for fear of being beaten up for having caused her demise.
As men shovelled red gravel onto her grave, some spoke in low tones condemning the acts of her church.
“These churches should be banned. How can they be so cruel as to encourage someone to stop taking her medication?” an elderly woman was overhead asking a fellow villager.
The men finished covering the grave and an old metal cup and plate, probably the last utensils she used, were placed at the head of her grave in line with African custom, the only mark to show her final resting place.
There was no cross, no flowers and no name on her grave. Tambudzai is yet another victim of the doctrinaire religious sects that are taking Zimbabwe by storm; she is among hundreds of other worshippers who met a similar fate.
Seventy-three percent of Zimbabweans practise Christianity, while others practise it side by side with traditional religions.
There are also many versions of Christianity, with some churches overtly borrowing from traditional religious practices such as divination, witch hunting and “spiritual” healing.
HIV and Aids counsellors said Tambudzai’s situation is common among people who practise the type of Christianity propounded by the new churches as they always complained that their churches discouraged them from taking medication and instructed them to drink holy water or milk only.
“We always tell them that there is no cure for this pandemic. Some just accept and take the tablets and disappear only to come back when they are seriously ill requiring second-line treatment, which in most cases is very expensive,” said Nomsa Khumalo, a counsellor based at a clinic in Amakhandeni, a high-density suburb in Bulawayo.
However, the churches offer alternative healing services through “faith healing” which comprises of “laying on of hands”, “holy water”, “prophecy and divination”.
These churches stand accused of dissuading members from taking any form of conventional medicine, including life-prolonging HIV drugs.
Pentecostal churches under the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe said their Christianity is based on a close reading of the Bible and expectations that members would try to base their lifestyle on Bible teachings as closely as possible.
Many people who are sick and desperate end up at these churches in search of a cure or some respite as they encourage having faith and using “holy water” and other such items that are given by the leader.
Some use unprotected sex as a form of internal cleansing thereby increasing the risk of spreading HIV and Aids.
Cases of well-known apostolic sect leaders raping women under the guise of treating them are also very common, and have made headlines in local newspapers.
Church elders who spoke on condition that they were not named said it was true that some churches cured the pandemic through the Holy Spirit and it was only those worshippers who did not have faith that were not healed.
“I think you have seen miracles happening on television, with God-sent prophets like TB Joshua healing the toughest and most feared diseases. I believe HIV and Aids can be cured in God’s name,” said an elder with one of the apostolic churches.
A seminarian with the Roman Catholic Church in Bulawayo, Paul Gandiwa, said he did not believe these churches were curing diseases.
“These are some of the churches that were prophesied in the Bible; it was said that in the last days they would cause much confusion,” he said.
Health officials said patients also need to understand that they have to take pills for the rest of their lives even when they don’t feel ill, a concept that is not always easy to absorb in a setting where most diseases are either cured or lead to death.
“Protective health behaviours have to be adopted, that is engaging in safe sexual practices and the use of condoms,” said a Ministry of Health and Child Welfare official Samson Moyo.
In South Africa, the Advertising Standards Authority recently banned Christ Embassy Church from airing its claims of faith healing following a complaint from the Treatment Action Campaign.
The church claimed to use faith healing to treat several diseases, including heart disease and had run adverts on its website claiming to treat Aids.
A Treatment Action Campaign spokesperson told the Sowetan newspaper: “Quackery of this nature is not merely misleading. It is life-destroying,” he said.
He gave an example of a woman who was infected with an extreme type of drug-resistant TB who stopped taking her medication because she believed the church had cured her.
She died after infecting her own children with the disease.
According to doctors, most people with HIV or Aids also try complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapy to boost their immune system, treat complications of the disease or ease side effects from HIV drugs.
“Some examples of CAM therapies are acupuncture, plant products such as herbal supplements, massage, aromatherapy and meditation. Nevertheless, it is always advisable to talk to your doctor first. Some CAM therapies may not work, carry risks or even be harmful,” said Dr Ismail Mohammed, a medical practitioner in Bulawayo.
He gave an example of the widely-used herbal products, St John’s wort and garlic supplements, which he said can interfere with some HIV medicines.
St John’s wort is used to boost mood.
Garlic supplements are used to lower cholesterol which has made it popular with HIV patients whose cholesterol levels have risen due to side effects of HIV drugs.
In 2006 the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended treatment when CD4 count fell to 200.
Since then research has shown that starting medication earlier when CD4 counts are higher reduces illness.
People with unusual or severe side effects should also be monitored for drug toxicity and treatment should be discontinued if toxicity is confirmed.
In such cases WHO recommends that the entire drug combination be changed.