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Reported May 17, 2012

Clergy Fight HIV with Faith

(Ivanhoe Newswire) – African Americans have HIV infection rates seven times higher than whites. In a new paper a team of physicians and researchers report that African-American clergy are ready to join the fight against HIV by focusing on testing, treatment and social justice.

"We in public health have done a poor job of engaging African-American community leaders and particularly black clergy members in HIV prevention," Amy Nunn, lead author of the study and assistant professor of medicine in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University was quoted as saying.

"There is a common misperception that African American churches are unwilling to address the AIDS epidemic. This paper highlights some of the historical barriers to effectively engaging African American clergy in HIV prevention and provides recommendations from clergy for how to move forward."

The paper analyzes and distills dozens of interviews and focus group data among 38 black pastors and imams in Philadelphia, where racial disparities in HIV infection are especially stark. Seven in 10 new infections in the city are among black residents. With uniquely deep influence in their communities, nearly all of the 27 male and 11 female clergy said they could and would preach and promote HIV testing and treatment.

Research published and widely reported last year, suggests that testing and then maintaining people on treatment could dramatically reduce new infections because treatment can give people a 96-percent lower chance of transmitting HIV.

"For decades, we've focused many HIV prevention efforts on reducing risky behavior," said Nunn.

"Focusing on HIV testing and treatment should be the backbone of HIV prevention strategies and efforts to reduce racial disparities in HIV infection. Making HIV testing routine is the gateway to getting more individuals on treatment. African American clergy have an important role to play in routinizing HIV testing."

But clergy members face barriers to preaching about risk behaviors without still emphasizing abstinence.

"It's my duty as a preacher to tell people to abstain," one pastor told the research team, "but if they're still having sex and they're getting HIV, there has to be another way to handle this."

Many clergy members suggested couching the HIV/AIDS epidemic in social justice rather than behavioral terms, Nunn said. They also recommended focusing on HIV testing as an important means to slow the spread of the disease and reduce the stigma.

"We need to standardize testing," one pastor told the researchers. "One thing that we could do immediately is to encourage our congregations — everybody — to get tested. ... We're not dealing with risk factors. And we're all going to get tested once a year. That's the one thing that we could do that doesn't get into our doctrine about sexuality."

SOURCE: PLoS ONE, May 2012

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