Timor-Leste nun bemoans lack of effort in HIV fight

Sister accuses govt, church of not being proactive enough following a sharp rise in cases
Timor-Leste nun bemoans lack of effort in HIV fight

People attend an event on Dec. 4 in Dili to mark World AIDS Day and raise awareness about the deadly virus. (Photo by Thomas Ora/ucanews.com) 

A Holy Spirit nun has accused the government and church in Timor-Leste of dragging their feet in tackling the spread of HIV/AIDS and called on them to take a more proactive approach in dealing with a rapidly growing problem.

The claim brought a swift denial from the government.

According to Sister Prisca dos Santos, who works with people living with HIV, a sharp increase in the number of cases over the last few years has seen government and church officials bury their heads in the sand.

Despite having a low prevalence rate — less than one percent of the adult population — the number of infections in the predominantly Catholic nation has risen sharply over the past few years, according to Ministry of Health figures.

From 509 cases recorded in 2009, there were 831 people living with HIV as of September 2018, the figures showed. Some 103 had died since the virus was first reported in in 2003.

Most of those infected, 60 percent, were aged between 25 and 44, the figures showed.

The nun, however, claims the figures are probably much higher and blamed the government and church for contributing to the rise by not doing enough to actively combat the disease, instead leaving the task to non-governmental organisations that do not have as extensive a reach as they do.

Dos Santos, who runs Dili Rest Home, a transient house for HIV/AIDS patients, said the church and the government have not been proactive enough in fighting the deadly disease.

"The increase in cases and a basic lack of knowledge within society about the disease are clear indicators that not much is being done," she said on the sidelines of an event staged this week to mark World AIDS Day, which was on Dec. 1.

The Holy Spirit Sisters are the only religious congregation in Timor-Leste actively serving HIV-positive patients. Dili Rest Home accommodates 105 HIV patients, most of whom are women.

According to Dos Santos, the church and government have worked together regarding HIV but have limited their activities to just issuing proclamations or preaching from the pulpit.

Bishop Vigilio do Carmo da Silva of Dili has several times urged young people during special Masses to guard against the disease by treating their bodies as the temple of God.

"What is needed is for [government and church] to go into the streets, to villages and test people to find and help those possibly infected with HIV," the nun said.

They need to use their resources to gain a more accurate picture so as to come up with an effective plan to counter the threat, she added.

However, Daniel Marcal, executive secretary of the national anti-HIV/AIDS commission, dismissed her claims, saying the government was trying to be proactive.

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Since 2014 the commission has mounted awareness campaigns in schools, villages and private and public sector organizations, he said.

"In collaboration with the church and communities, the government has also encouraged people to check on their health at their nearest clinic or at a hospital," Marcal said.

He said the government hopes to see Timor-Leste HIV free by 2030.

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