Thanks to the precious financial support of Caritas Korea, Caritas Internationalis (CI) was able to showcase workable models in which religious leaders play a key role in advancing case-finding and early treatment for children living with HIV.
The presentations were made by Caritas leaders from Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nigeria in occasion of the 20th International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA), held in Kigali, Rwanda, on December 2-7, 2019.
The success stories were presented during a session themed: “Strengthening the commitment of religious denominations in early diagnosis and treatment for children living with HIV / AIDS”
The stories came from the GRAIL Project - Galvanizing Religious Actors for better Identification and Linkage to Pediatric HIV, a project implemented by CI through Caritas Congo ASBL and Caritas Nigeria, with technical and financial support from PEPFAR and UNAIDS under the PEFAR-UNAIDS FBO Initiative.
“GRAIL has leveraged the influence of religious leaders to de-stigmatize HIV and improve case identification and treatment access. It demonstrates the fact that FBO Communities have a major role to play in the race towards the achievement of HIV epidemic control,” said Rev. Fr Uchechukwu Obodoechina, Executive Secretary General of Caritas Nigeria.
The GRAIL Project was a conceptual progression of the Congregational Approach already used by Caritas Nigeria to respond to health-related community needs, the so-called Baby Shower Experience. The Baby Shower Project is an integrated approach to HIV testing in pregnant women using Church’s congregational settings giving counselling and testing services to pregnant women and their partners during church services, testing specifically for HIV, Hepatitis B and Sickle cell; alongside Weight, Height, and BP checks.
For GRAIL, it has been completed by scientific and pastoral considerations on pediatric HIV through pre-trainings, trainings and post trainings sessions.
During the in pre-training phase, CI and Caritas Nigeria identified priority regions looking at those with the highest pediatric HIV-related gaps and challenges, merged with the presence of FBOs health facilities (Catholic and protestant Christian) responding to pediatric HIV, as well as local Catholic parishes.
After that phase, CI and Caritas Nigeria led sub-national trainings for Catholic religious’ leaders on pediatrics HIV, working on scientific-based simplified messages and identifying Catholic religious’ champions with the role to create a cascade-response to pediatric HIV through further sharing of messages
This resulted into support of catholic religious’ champions to establish and coordinate church health teams; conduct of “catalytic activities” to identify and track mother-child pairs in their congregations using the WHO Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI) framework and Bandason screening criteria for pediatric HIV to initiate HIV testing and ART where appropriate; and collection of data depicting pediatric HIV response to monitor progress and evaluate results.
The champions in these project were also tasked with Securing support of the Archbishop, Step-down trainings at the local level, Awareness creation in congregations, Identification of new champions in the Congregation, Using Group Meetings as opportunity to share pediatric HIV information, Introduction of pediatric HIV to Catholic institutions, Awareness creation on pediatric HIV in Refugee camps and Reactivation of Parish Action Committee on AIDS (PACA) among others.
The results included participation of 179 religious, including 89 priests 33 religious and 85 champions identified in a total of 21 states mostly in the south and north, out of 36 states in Nigeria.
The same approach has been adapted to the context of DRC, where Caritas Internationalis and Caritas Congo ASBL, though the engagement of priests, pastors, catechists, nuns and parish animators have created a level of awareness about the existence of the disease in children. However, problems of geographical accessibility of parents to bring children into the hospital and long-term interruption of HIV inputs has challenged the project, creating a 59% gap in treatment, as reported by Dr. Jean Munongo, Director of Health Services of Caritas Congo ASBL and Sr Eugénie Masika of Caritas Kisangani, a Diocesan Caritas of Caritas Congo ASBL and religious GRAIL champion.
As of 2018, GRAIL Nigeria and GRAIL DRC overall results show that religious leaders reached more than 60,000 women, men and children with age appropriate HIV messaging, and 25,000 children referred for HIV testing - among them 150 diagnosed HIV+ but now under life-saving treatment.
For the religious men and women behind GRAIL, it effectively leveraged the influence of religious leaders to de-stigmatize HIV and improve case identification and treatment access.
“It demonstrated clearly that HIV as a psycho- socio-medical condition requires the complement of religious leaders to address the key component of the disease and that FBO Communities have a major role to play in the race towards the achievement of HIV epidemic control,” said Rev. Sr Pauline Chukwudolue, religious GRAIL champion of Nigeria.
For further information on the GRAIL project, which is planned to be exported to and adapted for specific context of Tanzania, Côte d’Ivoire and Kenya, please contact Mr. Stefano Nobile, CI Focal Point for Health and HIV, firstname.lastname@example.org