Rwanda Interfaith Council on Health (RICH) has called on stakeholders to adopt new methods of fast track HIV prevention, treatment and support following research findings showing high prevalence among youth.
Dr. Bishop Gahungu Bunini, a RICH Board Member, said that faith-based organizations have to learn from the experience of COVID-19 to establish new religious based programs aimed at addressing current and future pandemics that directly affect the faithful in or outside the religious circles.
HIV prevalence in Rwanda, according to the Ministry of Health, has been stable at 3% for the last decade and the 2018 Health Management Information system (HMIS) data shows that 227,896 people were living with HIV.
It is higher among women (3.6%) than men (2.2%); more prevalent in urban areas (4.8%) compared to rural areas (2.5%).
HIV Prevalence among young adolescents (aged 10-14 years) was 0.4%, corresponding to approximately 5,900 young adolescents out of a total of 216,000 people living with HIV among those aged 10-64 years.
Dr. Bishop Bunini said it is important to keep reminding citizens on the existence of HIV/AIDS and this requires rolling out similar programs used during COVID-19, of which faith-based organizations were quick to put in place.
“Now that life is back to normal we (churches) need to put in place programs that will help us to change mindsets and put more efforts to prevent HIV, a disease which is equally a social problem today,” Dr. Bishop Bunini said September 21, 2022.
Dr.Bishop Bunini was opening a one-day advocacy meeting on the youth engagement to fast track HIV prevention, treatment and support in the city of Kigali, an activity under RICH project dubbed “Rwanda Interfaith Engagement to Fast Track HIV prevention, treatment and support through Religious Networks”.
The meeting that is part of an initiative funded by United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), attracted religious leaders from many confessions, Religious youth movement leaders and officials in the city of Kigali, stakeholders in HIV response and representative from Rwanda Biomedical Center (RBC) who shared the views of what needs to be done.
Dr. Bishop Bunini said that preparation and establishment of programs aimed at fighting pandemics will be helpful in preparing religious organizations for future preparedness and response to pandemics.
He added that this should be followed by faith organizations creating knowledge and testimony-sharing platforms, where citizens and other organizations can learn what is being done in the fight against HIV.
Although people living with HIV have free access to ARVs, youth like Nikita Uwase Mugwiza say that some think HIV is a closed book due to lack of accurate information on HIV, sexual and reproductive health among youth.
Dr. Basile Ikuzo, director of HIV prevention in RBC also said that there is a clear need to increase awareness on HIV and SRH among youth.
“This essential to fast track HIV prevention and treatment as the youth is one of the groups with high HIV prevalence and reluctant to seek HIV services but we (as government) in collaboration with partners like RICH are rethinking better methods to strengthen HIV awareness to keep reminding citizens of the existence of the scourge.
Father Evariste Nshimyumuremyi, Secretary General of youth commission at Catholic Episcopal Conference of Rwanda, commended RICH and UNAIDS partnership that is contributing to strengthening the youth engagement within religious movements in HIV response.
The priest said that there are young people who believe that HIV does not kill because there are drugs that reduce its severity thus the need to bring the campaign to youth across the country but with current information trends.
“We need to find youth where they spend most of their time- that is on social media and the internet which is the current and relevant means of information sharing,” he said.
“Therefore, such initiatives are key for embarking a large number of youth in the fight against HIV,” Father Nshimyumuremyi said.
Jean Baptiste Twizeyimana, the Rwanda Network of People Living with HIV (RRP+) representative said that in ten years, the HIV/AIDS stigma has dropped from 56% to 13% today but religious leaders have to adapt their approach on pre and post marital counselling and education especially encouraging couples-to-be to get tested before marriage to avoid testing related stigma.
The participating religious leaders explained that this is done in order to prepare and allow couples to know each other’s HIV status before marriage but the element of HIV serodisclosure remains in hands of health providers who must ensure that proper couple counseling and testing is conducted.
Other areas of concern were also raised by Afissa Musabyimana, a representative of the Umbrella of Organizations of People with Disabilities in the Fight against HIV and AIDS and in Health promotion (UPHLS) who highlighted that, there is a decline in youth taking up VCT services but also among the People With Disability because channels of communication are not inclusive for youth and People with disability.
“We need to bridge the gaps in information and communication on HIV for the People with disability. These create a disconnection in a way that they cannot understand existing HIV related interventions such as prevention, treatment and support, thus making them more vulnerable to protect themselves and others from HIV infection,” Musabyimana said.
As commitments, the City of Kigali representatives assured their collaboration with RICH and religious youth movements in HIV response; and participants pledged to increase HIV awareness among young people as one of the high-risk groups, including sensitization on adherence and retention in care program for adolescents living with HIV.
RICH is made of religious denominations grouped in six confessional groups namely: the Catholic Church represented by the Episcopal conference of Rwanda, the Anglican Church of Rwanda, the Protestant Council of Rwanda, the Evangelical Alliance of Rwanda, Rwanda Muslim Community, and FEPR (Fédération des Eglises Protestantes Reformées au Rwanda).