Religion can help fight AIDS, says study

GEORGETOWN, Guyana — Strategies to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among young people could be more effective if they tapped into the power of religious belief and practice, according to researchers who studied the knowledge and attitudes of young people in relation to sexual behavior and HIV/AIDS.

The study, sponsored by UNICEF and conducted by the Varqa Foundation here, found that young people who knew and followed the teachings of their religion were much less likely to have engaged in sexual intercourse than those who did not, by a rate of 18 percent to 45 percent respectively.

“Prevention strategies for the spread of HIV/AIDS should harness religious belief and practice, especially in societies such as Guyana where religious affiliation remains strong,” wrote the study’s authors in the March 2007 issue of the International Journal of STD and AIDS.

Guyana has the third highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, which is the second-most afflicted region in the world.

“Many specialists working in international development are somewhat uncomfortable with faith-based efforts at personal and community transformation — such as to prevent HIV/AIDS,” said Brian O’Toole, the lead author in the study and director of the Varqa Foundation, a Bahá’í-inspired social and economic development agency based in Guyana. “But this study suggests that in a country like Guyana, where many people have strong faith-based beliefs, it might be possible to draw on spiritual inspiration to address some of the problems facing society.”

Other authors included Roy McConkey, a professor in the health promotion group at the Institute of Nursing Research at the University of Ulster; Karen Casson, also of the University of Ulster; Debbie Goetz-Goldberg, a researcher with Health for Humanity, another Bahá’í-inspired agency; and Arash Yazdani, a youth volunteer.

More than 2,000 people age 12 to 20 were surveyed by a network of young people organized by the Varqa Foundation. Respondents completed anonymous, self-reporting questionnaires about sexual behavior, their understanding of HIV/AIDs, and attitudes towards issues like virginity and condom use.

Ninety-five percent of respondents were aware that HIV could be contracted from sexual contact with someone who was HIV positive. However, less than a third (29.5 percent) were able to state up to three other ways that HIV could spread and only 37 percent were able to name three ways of self-protection.

The survey also found that in Guyana, nearly 25 percent of young people age 12 to 14 were sexually active, a percentage that rose to more than 33 percent for those 15 and older. Nearly half of the males over the age of 15 were sexually active, according to the survey.

Respondents were asked if they were aware of their religion’s teaching on sexual matters and whether they followed it. Just over 35 percent of the young people said they did, with another 22 percent knowing the teaching but not following it.

The authors also concluded that peer education should be another element in any strategy of HIV/AIDS prevention.

“The content and delivery of educational inputs must be capable of being adapted to local contexts preferably by persons who are very familiar with those situations,” wrote the authors. “In this respect, peer education would appear to offer some promise.”