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AIDS epidemic growing in Asia

By Donald E. Messer*

Dec. 10, 2009

Children perform at an AIDS orphanage
in Bali, Indonesia. UMNS Photos
courtesy of Donald Messer.

The HIV and AIDS pandemic often remains overlooked in Asia, where more than half of the world’s population resides. Sub-Saharan Africa, as the epicenter of the global crisis, with 71 percent of all new infections in 2008, has deservedly drawn the most media and public attention. 

Globally, 33.4 million people (almost half women) are estimated to be HIV positive. Ten years ago, one in 10 people infected was Asian—today one of five newly infected are Asian. About 5 million people live with HIV, including some 440,000 newly infected in the past year. The percentage of Asian women infected has escalated from 17 percent to 35 percent. Only South Africa has more people infected than India.

Recent visits to Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand have highlighted for me the perilous dilemmas and urgent challenges faced in Asia. In every place, cultural and religious traditions hinder effective strategies for education, prevention, care and treatment.

Addressing taboo topics

AIDS remains a defining issue of our time—a global health and human development emergency that impacts the most impoverished and vulnerable.  Despite increased efforts focused on prevention and treatment, the world is losing the battle. In 2008, 2 million died of AIDS and 2.7 million were newly infected with HIV. 

The pandemic still remains an unaddressed taboo topic in most Christian churches around the world. Relatively few congregations sponsor AIDS ministries or annually observe World AIDS Day Dec. 1.

After preaching in a rural church in India, a young man and his family approached me, declaring, “I have been waiting and waiting for this day. My church has been silent while millions in my country have become infected with HIV and died of AIDS.”

Despite the fact that Jesus did not discriminate among the sick who came to him for healing, Christians often have chosen to stigmatize persons and families living with HIV. The Great Physician repeatedly commanded his disciples to “cure every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 9:35; 10:1), but many modern-day followers prefer to avoid dealing with the disease in their communities and churches. 

Yet if Christians are to be partners in efforts to create an AIDS-free world, difficult subjects must be addressed and actions taken. 

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Practicing “zero grazing”

Foremost must be underscoring what Ugandans call “zero grazing,” that is, being sexually faithful to one’s partner. Married women around the world are the most imperiled.

UNAIDS says an estimated 50 million Asian women are now at risk of being infected by partners, particularly from men who buy sex, most of whom are married.

During the International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific last August in Bali, it was reported that over 90 percent of the 1.7 million women living with HIV in Asia were infected by their husbands or partners with whom they had a long-term relationship.

Princey in Sri Lanka told me how she was infected by her husband. Once neighbors learned of their illness, they burned their home down and forced them, and their two little daughters, to flee. After her husband died, she formed a network of Positive Women, “hoping the next generation doesn’t have to endure what my family has experienced.”

Appealing for help at a meeting of concerned evangelical church leaders in Colombo, she told how recently when she went to a dentist seeking treatment for a toothache, she was thrown out of the office rather than getting care.

Bringing light and love

Years ago, retired United Methodist Bishop Felton May said, “Churches cannot conquer AIDS alone, but it will not happen without us.”  Today, the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, with its limited resources, is making a difference. To date, the church-oriented and Christ-centered fund has supported over 160 projects in 33 countries.

The medicine shelves are
nearly empty at the Women
and Children’s Center in Namakkal, India.


One such project, a Women and Children’s Center, stands on a busy street corner in Namakkal, India. Impoverished women, children and youth come for urgently needed health care. The staff introduced me to a child-headed household. Three young children had been recently orphaned because of AIDS. Now they live in a little cement-block home built for them by five United Methodist women from LaVeta, Colo. 

The malnourished 15-year-old boy, Siva, works 10 hours a day cleaning eggs with formaldehyde liquid. He is trying to pay off his father’s 5,000 rupee debt, as well as earn money for food to feed the family.  His 12-year-old sister, Gomathi, suffering from tuberculosis, cooks and cleans and has to leave for school by 7 every morning. Together they care for their 8-year-old HIV-positive brother, Murugan.

Since it was Murugan’s birthday, we brought a cake complete with candles. As I sang “Happy Birthday,” tears streamed down my face. I thanked God for these courageous children struggling to survive and for all those unknown loving Christians who are joining everywhere to battle HIV and AIDS, bringing hope and light to the world.

The next day when I stood outside the Women and Children’s Center, amid the frenetic bustle of life, I heard in my heart the lyrics of a hymn United Methodists have been singing for 100 years, “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life,” penned by Frank M. North. I felt Christ’s presence as I recalled the familiar verses:

            “From tender childhood’s helplessness,
From woman’s grief, man’s burdened toil,
From famished souls, from sorrow’s stress,
Your heart has never known recoil. 

            The cup of water given for You,
Still holds the freshness of Your grace;
Yet long these multitudes to view
The sweet compassion of Your face. 

            O Master, from the mountainside
Make haste to heal these hearts of pain;
Among these restless throngs abide;
O tread the city’s streets again.”

*Messer, executive director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS in Centennial, Colo., also serves as chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund.

News media contact: David Briggs, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org. 

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