This article appears in the November 2005 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

On a personal note… Tuesday 7th June 2005

Sister Janet

In a daily e-mail from Vatican Radio 105-Live

Please excuse me if I'm feeling somewhat irritated, but I'm tired of ignorance masquerading as wisdom.

Last week a 19 year-old celebrity attacked the Pope because she thinks he hasn't read the same book as she has, although she has "come from a Catholic family".  She should therefore, I suppose, be well qualified to criticise the Pope.  Her remarks appeared in an equally theologically lightweight tabloid. 

This evening I've read some pretty scathing remarks about the attitude of the Church towards AIDS and condoms. Apparently the Church is killing off Africa.

Well, excuse me, but I think I know slightly more than the speaker concerned.  I've recently spent 12 years working directly with people with HIV/AIDS.  I suspect he has not spent countless hours traipsing dusty roads through the bush and through the city in search of an adult who might weigh about 30kg (or less), whose desperate cough, appalling diarrhoea and various other symptoms are a diagnosis of the disease even without a blood test. (Thank God, because the necessary reagents are not always available.

I imagine he does not know what it is like to deliver a premature baby of an extremely ill mother and to wonder whether it would be better for the little mite to survive or not because its mother is dying.

I suppose he has never held a 6 month-old baby in one hand, knowing that the urine-sodden bundle, too weak to cry, with its wizened, almost monkey-like face and parchment-like skin has known far more suffering than any child of its age should ever have to undergo.

He probably hasn’t rescued every cardboard box in sight so that it might be used as a coffin.  I wonder if he knows what it feels like to see a baby carried out for burial in a box marked ‘2cc syringes’?  I can tell you.  It hurts!

How many similar images do I have? No idea at all because I never counted them.  I suspect, however, that the speaker to whom I referred earlier might have read some glossy magazines and pamphlets on the subject.

Let me put a few facts before you.

In sub-Saharan Africa, if it were not for the Catholic Church as a whole and for the individual parishes, the huge numbers of people with HIV/AIDS would have little or no help whatsoever because their governments do little or nothing to help. How often do medical staff steal drugs from government health facilities and resell them at exorbitant prices? Continually!

It is the poorest of the poor, people with absolutely nothing for themselves, who give up their time and energy day after day, night after night, to visit the sick, perhaps taking a piece of soap that the carer herself needs and cannot afford to buy.  It is the members of the Small Christian Communities who will help with the washing of yet another bundle of soiled bedding, who will tie a makeshift stretcher between two bicycles and will walk many miles through the heat and the dust to take a patient to hospital.  Who will continue to support a bereaved family and will give a home to the orphans.

Without needing to go into the rights or the wrongs, the whys and the wherefores of condoms, their manufacturers are making a fortune for themselves.  Of course you’ll promote a commodity that is a “good little earner”! 

Let me conclude by describing something unforgettable.  I was visiting various patients in the compound, escorted by a carer. A man saw the miniscule bag of fish (kapenta) in her hand that she had, with difficulty, been able to afford for her family.  He was very ill indeed.  He told her that he thought he could eat some kapenta, if she could spare it.  The carer gave her entire bag, leaving her family with nothing.  The man died that afternoon. Unknowingly, she had given him his last meal on this earth. 

That is what the Church is doing for people with HIV/AIDS…only most of the world couldn’t be bothered to open their eyes and see the truth for themselves.

God bless,