Prayer camps have now become part of the Christian religion practice in our society. In the Eastern Region for example, there is intense competition for public attention and patronage among pastors and prophets, operating some of these prayer camps.
At every road intersection, village or hamlet, one would find a post or banner showing the direction and advertising the wonders the “special breed of men of God” have been performing.
Visit these camps and you will be shocked – people with serious health problems, living under poor and insanitary conditions and aggravating their situation, all because they have been made to accept that, this was how to get cured.
It is commonplace seeing sick people sleep on the bare floor in over-crowded rooms with poor ventilation – predisposing them to the risk of contracting infectious diseases.
Hardest hit by the activities of these prayer camps is HIV and AIDS response. Many people diagnosed of the infection have been running to the camps, instead of taking their anti-retroviral therapy (ART) medication and the adoption of healthy lifestyles. The reason for this is simple – they have been told they can be cured through herbs, concoctions, fasting and prayers alongside heavy donations to support the work of God.
What is even more disturbing is that many of these prayer camps operate in areas with high prevalence of the infection in the region and have succeeded in working on the minds of infected persons that, their condition is spiritual and therefore can only be cured through spiritual means.
Many of the patients, doing well as a result of the ART, somewhere along the line, would stop taking the drugs, to seek permanent cure from the “herbalist-turned-pastors”.
Available statistics show that between January-December 2016, 1,996 out of the 2,731 patients on ART in the region abandoned treatment and “lost to follow-ups”, meaning they could neither be traced by the health workers nor their support groups ‘models of hope’. Out of that figure 1,482 were women.
Majority of these defaulters or “lost to follow-ups” would often return later with their condition worsened – having moved from HIV career to the full blown AIDS and only a few of them survive.
Rose Maku, who had tested positive and was doing well on ART, recounted to the Ghana News Agency (GNA) how she was made to believe by a pastor that she was suffering from a curse invoked on her by late fiancé’s family and therefore should stop the medication to take herbal concoction.
Within a space of six months she had deteriorated and anytime she sought to know from the pastor why she was becoming weak each passing day, the answer was “it is a sign that the herbal concoction combined with the fasting and prayers is working” and that she was going to be okay by the time she was through with the rituals.
Ms. Maku said but for the timely intervention of her brother, who took her to the hospital – to get her back on the ART treatment, she would not have lived to tell her story.
She is now healthy and going about her trading activities.
Ms. Golda Asante, the Eastern Regional Coordinator of the Ghana AIDS Commission (GAC), described the situation, where patients put on ART default to seek cure at the prayer camps as alarming and a threat to the 90-90-90 strategy.
Apart from losing such patients to death, this has the tendency to increase the prevalence rate. When they abandon the ART treatment and other services including counselling and testing for viral loads, they become careless in their sexual lifestyles.
Each of the three 90s in the strategy means something different which ultimately would inure to the benefit of the response to HIV.
What the first 90 means is that by year 2030, 90 per cent of all infected persons would receive ART and all other appropriate services and the next 90, being that 90 per cent of the entire population would know their status and the last 90, envisaging that 90 per cent of those infected would have had their viral loads suppressed by that period.
Ms. Asante said the Regional AIDS Committee was deeply worried about the rate infected persons were defaulting and new infections, it had been seeing in spite of the gains made.
She noted that “the prayer camps’ activities if not halted will derail efforts at achieving the 90-90-90”.
The ART has a strict dosage regimen and so defaulting for a few weeks, puts an infected person in a very serious condition. This presents a risk to the entire public because during that period, symptoms may not show. The infected person can, however, easily infect others through unprotected sex.
Ms. Asante wants concerted effort to regulate the activities of the prayer camps as far as the HIV and AIDS response or strategies are concerned. The camps should be trained to identify and refer HIV and AIDS clients to the hospitals for medical treatment, even as they provided them with spiritual support.
Religion and spirituality play very important roles in human’s life but social, educational and economic status determine the extent to which anybody could skilfully work their way through life. There could not be any dispute about the fact that God is the ultimate healer, but just as oral rehydration solution (ORS) is prescribed for diarrhoea and cholera, so is ART for HIV and this should be under the supervision of trained personnel.
The ART is the only prescribed universal drug for the treatment of HIV for now. No concoction or herbal drug has proven to cure the disease. HIV is neither acquired through a curse nor is it spiritual as some people may want us to believe.
The only way to manage HIV is to take the ART and to lead healthy lifestyles.
Every effort needs to be made to ensure that the activities of the prayer camps do not overtake or undermine the work of our health institutions. The Church should take centre stage in the fight against the spread of the HIV infection by helping everybody to seek treatment at the hospitals