Nigeria was one of the first developing countries to be hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic; by 2007, approximately 2.6 million people were infected, and Nigeria joined countries like South Africa and India as those reporting the largest numbers of HIV/AIDS cases. The impact of the disease in what is a highly religious country has been phenomenal, and this journal article examines the response of Nigerian religious leaders to the challenge of HIV/AIDS, and the adequacy or otherwise of these responses. It also explores the ways in which religious leaders can effectively meet the challenges of a disease that is not only a health problem, but also a crisis that affects the social, economic, spiritual and political lives of the people in their own communities.
The article examines the literature to discuss several key aspects concerning the HIV/AIDS crisis, the challenges and needs of people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), and the role of stakeholders including religious leaders and government. These aspects include: an explanation of why it is important to engage with religious leaders; their mixed response to HIV/AIDS; the role of religion and culture in exacerbating the pandemic; the prohibition on condom use by Catholic leaders; the success of education programmes through government and religious leader collaboration; the discrimination faced by PLWHA; and the counter-productive and non-evidence-based trend of some religious leaders to mandate pre-marriage testing, with subsequent refusal to marry in cases that return positive.
The article closes with a look at a way forward, with the author recommending that there should be regular trainings to educate religious leaders on HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as care and/or counselling, since many have no such training at all. Faith-based organisations can also support prevention and care through the distribution of up-to-date, accurate information in local languages on HIV/AIDS, while there is a need for religious leaders to use their spiritual or religious teachings to emphasise compassion, healing, and support for PLWHA. Religious leaders should be willing to channel some of their formidable resources, in the form of schools, clinics, hospitals, and orphanages, for HIV work, to help diagnose, treat, and support PLWHA, and to spread awareness and educate people on the nature and dangers of the disease. The author concludes by saying that religious leaders have a crucial role to play by using the trust and authority they have in their communities to help bring healing and hope to all who are affected by the HIVAIDS epidemic.