Page 3, 31st October 1986

31st October 1986
Page 3
Page 3, 31st October 1986 — Proclaiming hope: fighting against AIDS

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Proclaiming hope: fighting against AIDS

Spode House this weekend hosts a conference on the Catholic Church and AIDS. Martin Pendergast looks at the Christian response to this killer disease


WHEN I was a child a familiar form of verbal abuse amongst children was the taunting cry "fever!" This was the way to isolate imagined enemies, whether on the street corner or in the school playground.

I was stopped in my tracks recently hearing a group of youngsters doing the same thing, crying: "AIDS!" Those of us who work with people with AIDS find the fight against ignorance, irrational fear, and prejudice, as hard a struggle as is the effort to find a vaccine or a cure for this terrible spectrum of disease.

We all need to be sure that we know what AIDS is and is not. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is, therefore, a spectrum of diseases which are caused by a virus now known as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). It is sometimes referred to as HTLVIII Virus, but this has been felt to be too scientific sounding ,and not immediatley understandable.

Suffering from AIDS means that a person's normal immune system is damaged and so certain infections are difficult to fight. These include: pneumocystis carrinii pneumonia (PCP) — a lung disease; Kaposi's Sarcoma which is a type of skin cancer which can also affect the intestines, lungs, lymph glands and other internal organs; persistent diarrhoea which does not respond to conventional treatment; Candidiasis (commonly called Thrush): and various forms of brain disease which can lead to blindness, dementia, paralysis, change in personality and loss of intelligence. Other symptoms may include profound fatigue, persistent fevers, drenching night sweats, unexplained weight loss.

Infection with HIV may also result in contracting other illnesses which do not come within the definition of AIDS itself. These include Persistent Generalised Lymphadenopathy (PGL) which affects the lymph glands, and AIDS Related Complex (ARC) which can include things like shingles, herpes, as well as some of the other symptoms already mentioned, but which do not come strictly within a definition of AIDS.

The way in which certain newspapers use AIDS in their headlines grossly oversimplifies what is a very complicated disease to understand, let alone treat. Quite often "AIDS" will be used when in fact it is HIV the Virus — that they are really referring to. It is important to know that the majority of people infected with HIV remain perfectly well. They do not go on to develop AIDS.

Some of the statistics we have in this country at present show that only 10 per cent of individuals within two years of having a positive HIV antibody test will have gone on to develop AIDS, 15 per cent will have PGL or ARC and 75 per cent will be alive and well.

However, figures also show that the percentage of individuals with AIDS, ARC or PGL will grow as the time interval from initial infection or test result increases.

We cannot afford to be complacent as a result of these figures. While roughly 400 people have been diagnosed as having AIDS since the first case in this country was reported in 1982, approximately half of these have died. The Terrence Higgins Trust, one of the main voluntary bodies working in this field, estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people in this country carry the virus. Estimated figures suggest that by 1988 there could be 4,000 people with AIDS.

The majority of present sufferers are homosexual or bisexual men, but increasing numbers of injectable drug users are being diagnosed and in some parts of the country

In parts of Africa the major pattern of transmission is through heterosexual promiscuity so the tendency of some parts of the media to publish "Gay Plague" stories is not only offensive but inaccurate.

AIDS challenges us not to debate causes but to get on with dealing with a major health crisis. It has rocked health and social service workers from their complacency about dealing with infectious diseases generally. It is significant that people, even doctors and surgeons, get very anxious about AIDS, but have not bothered to get themselves immunised against Hepatitis 8, a much more easily contractable disease.

So, how is the virus which causes AIDS passed on? It is actually one of the most difficult viruses to contract. It CANNOT be passed on by sharing toilets, cups, touching or even kissing an infected person. It can't be "caught" by sharing an office or workplace with an infected person.

It can only be passed on: — through sexual intercourse, heterosexual or homosexual, with an infected person.

— by direct transfer of blood from an infected person; it CANNOT be passed on when an uninfected person gives blood.

— from an infected mother to her unborn or newborn baby before or during birth or from breast milk.

Sadly it is not unusual when society is in crisis that scapegoats have to be found for a whole range of social ills. The AIDS crisis has shown how shallow much of our "caring, sharing society" really is. It is convenient to shift the blame for AIDS onto people whom both church and society effectively marginalise.

So it is that so-called "at-risk groups" have been identified; gay and bisexual men, injectable drug users, prostitutes, people from Central Africa or parts of the Caribbean, haemophiliacs. The list gets longer by the day and those of us working in this field are beginning to give up the habit of referring to "at-risk" groups.

We are all at risk through the inactivity of governments and international bodies which have failed conspicuously to galvanise resources at their disposal. We are all at risk through the activities of those transnational pharmaceutical companies which have brought up cheap, often untreated blood in third world countries and mixed it with the blood of Skid Row, USA. We are all at risk through the concealment of reality and lack of easily understood information.

If blame is to be apportioned, let it not be upon those who historically have already bornethe brunt of much social and sexual oppression, but upon the powerful sectors of society whose interest is to divert such attention away from themselves.

Faced with the enormity of AIDS and HIV it is difficult to find signs of hope, but they exist. Researchers are edging towards a vaccine which may be preventative if not curative. Sadly the day of cure still seems a long way off. AIDS has made us all reflect upon our priorities. What policies do we have in our local health authorities and boroughs for dealing with infectious diseases generally?

AIDS calls us to learn that unconditional love is not a luxury, or something that has to be earned, or obtained only if one is the right kind of person, but a basic need of human beings. It is significant that the homosexual community both here and in the USA has taken on board the implications of the crisis. It has organised itself and spent over and over again in fundraising events in pubs and clubs. The impact of the Terrence Higgins Trust, operating from a one-roomed, cramped office, is treble that of government sponsored initiatives. Safer sex precautions are having an effect. Sexually Transmitted Disease clinics here and in the USA report a significant decrease in reported cases of syphilis and gonorrhea amongst homosexual men. Recent figures from New York Health Department show a decrease in homosexual and bisexual men testing positively for HIV, but unfortunately increases in the heterosexual population.

While the Catholic Church in this country is slow in coming to recognise a role for itself in the AIDS crisis, the churches in the USA have given a strong lead. Mother Teresa has commissioned her sisters to work in this new form of healing ministry and archbishops have officiated at special healing services.

It was heartening to hear Bishop Guazzelli devoting a recent Pause for Thought on Radio 2 to reflect on the Good Samaritan and people with AIDS.

A weekend conference at Spode House opens today to look at the Catholic Church and AIDS. This is supported by the bishops' and the Terrence Higgins Trust, and organised by the Dominicans.

A new ecumenical body, Christian Action on AIDS, has been formed to act as a resource and co-ordinating body to help the churches respond positively to the needs of all those affected by AIDS, be they patients, families, friends, carers, researchers, doctors, nurses or social workers.

God does not punish through disease. In the Bible, God's wrath is reserved for those who oppress the widow and orphan, refuse shelter and healing to the homeless and-crippled. AIDS is only God's wrath if 'flu, diabetes, heart disease or other suffering are signs of God's wrath on people.

Jesus, in John's Gospel, changed the superstitious

assumption that suffering is the direct result of sin (Jn. 9:1-3). HIV and AIDS are a tragedy, particularly in the many young lives they claim. But there is something enriching in being able to offer people support in this crisis.

The support can be no more than doing the shopping, helping with the laundry, cleaning or other chores. It may be taking Communion to people whether at home or in hospital. It may be ensuring that people with AIDS feel included in the Church, perhaps by having a regular bidding prayer for the needs of AIDS sufferers.

There is urgent need for education of clergy and other pastoral workers. There is a need to discover what is happening in our own local communities, and whether they are developing any policies for people with AIDS. Local churches will then need to see how their own resources can be used in fruitful partnership with others in a common cause.

A lot of these things are beginning to happen as the Church learns again what the second Vatican Council urged it to do, namely to take upon itself the joys and hopes, the sufferings and anxieties of this present time. Insofar as it does this in the fight against AIDS, it is proclaiming hope.

Martin Pendergast is a social• worker in a London teaching hospital, with experience of working with people with AIDS. He is a member of the Council of Christian Action on AIDS, and works closely with the Bishop and Pastoral Team in the East London Area of Westminster Archdiocese.

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