NHLANGANO, Swaziland —Some myths about HIV/AIDS put people at greater risk of infection.
Some myths multiply the rate at which the virus spreads.
But the most destructive myths are the ones that keep God's people from sharing the Good News of His love with people in need.
In 15 years as a Southern Baptist missionary in Swaziland, Barbara Myers has heard almost all the myths about AIDS, ranging from simple ignorance like "You can get the virus from another person's sweat" to downright evil suggestions that having sex with a child can cure AIDS.
Myers recalls seeing a newspaper item in Swaziland that claimed a "tinyanga" (witchdoctor) had, "under the strict guidance of the ancestors," created a natural cure for AIDS ailments and that the treatment was available for $110 a quart — a snake-oil pitch guaranteed to dupe desperate, naive souls.
In rural areas of Swaziland, people cling strongly to Swazi traditions, Myers says. Most Swazis still consult the traditional healers, including witchdoctors, where many of these myths and misconceptions originate.
"One husband took his sick wife to a witchdoctor, who told him the two other families living on their homestead were causing her to be sick," Myers says. "He chose to believe that nonsense even though he has been told that both he and his wife have AIDS.
"Another woman who had been told several years ago that she was HIV positive recently visited a clinic for an illness and was told she had tuberculosis due to windy weather conditions," Myers continues. "Now she is living the myth of believing she will fully recover if she takes her TB medicine."
The facts about the spread of AIDS are tragic enough without having to confront the harm these myths cause. There is not just one way HIV is transmitted, but in various parts of the world there are patterns that point to a primary path of infection in those regions:
According to UNAIDS, the joint United Nations program on HIV/AIDS, globally 68 percent of all people living with HIV are in Sub-Saharan Africa and over three-quarters of all AIDS deaths globally occur in this region. Unlike other regions, most people living with HIV in this area (about 61 percent) are women and for them infection results from sex with a man who was infected through dirty needles/illegal drug use, by unprotected paid sex, or from sex with other men.
In the U.S., according to the most recent CDC reports, nearly two-thirds of HIV infections resulted from men having sex with men. Half of the remaining cases are attributed to high-risk heterosexual contact (unprotected sex with a drug user or with a man who has sex with other men), while 16 percent contacted the virus from using dirty needles to get high from illegal drugs.
In Russia, HIV/AIDs is spreading largely through rampant intravenous drug abuse and sharing of infected needles.
Confronted by the staggering numbers — 22.5 million people living with HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa alone — it's easy to think of the global crisis as "just a bunch of statistics," says Mark Hatfield, who directs work in Sub-Saharan Africa for Baptist Global Response, a Southern Baptist international relief and development organization.
"All you have to do, though, is visit in the home of someone with full-blown AIDS who is experiencing a slow, painful death or stop in a home in which a 14-year-old is caring for three brothers and sisters because no adult is left to head the home," Hatfield says. "Then you begin to see the HIV/AIDS crisis as an extremely personal issue."
While it is true that poor personal choices, lack of development, and false beliefs contribute to the seriousness of the crisis, it also is true that many people are innocent victims of someone else's poor choices, Hatfield adds.
"And what is even more true is that, no matter the reason, these are all individuals who are loved by our Lord," he says. "These are all people he asks us, as His followers, to reach out to, with a touch that shares compassion and care."
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Kelly is an assistant editor with Baptist Press. World AIDS Day was Dec. 1. Resources to help your church or small group minister to people living with HIV/AIDS can be found at gobgr.org.)