In 2004, almost no antiretroviral treatment was available for HIV-positive South Africans with failing immune systems. Realizing the country was facing an emergency, the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference decided it had to help. Armed with just parish buildings and the compassion of parishioners, the Catholic Church transformed churches into HIV clinics in the hardest-hit regions of the country.
Funding from the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief provided through the AIDSRelief consortium enabled the Church to train staff to screen patients, distribute antiretroviral medications and follow up as needed in rural communities. With Catholic Relief Services' support, the Church is now providing HIV care and treatment to more than 60,000 people with HIV—20,000 of whom are on antiretroviral therapy. Services are delivered out of 14 primary sites and related outreach centers in remote areas, with most facilities being parish churches. CRS and the bishops' conference are now strengthening partnerships with government health facilities to eventually transfer this high-quality HIV care to the public sector for long-term sustainability.
Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa, based in Nairobi, Kenya. All photos by Debbie DeVoe/CRS