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Global Health Increasingly Influenced by Religion

A new series published in a U.K. medical journal demonstrates the growing role of religion in global health.

The three-part series from The Lancet focuses on faith-based healthcare and how religious organizations can play a crucial role in helping health coverage become universal. The series suggests a lack of evidence about the abundance of health services faith-based organizations provide and represent. However, the series also validates the important role faith-based health providers play in immunization, prevention of mother and child deaths, HIV services and antimalarial campaigns.

The role of religion in global health is even more crucial in areas with fragile health systems.

Faith-based organizations have a unique opportunity because of their experience, strengths and capacities. According to The Lancet, the chance to play a vital role in global heath arises from their wide geographical coverage, infrastructure and influence. For a faith-based organization to have an impact on global health, it needs the support and trust of its community. This is where religious leaders play a role.

Religious leaders tend to have lots of authority at the grass roots within a community, as well as the ability to shape people’s opinions. Leaders of faith-based organizations, along with having substantial social and political sway, also have a network of people they inspire, in turn mobilizing congregations to make a difference. For example, Channels of Hope, a project of the Evangelical Christian aid organization World Vision International, mobilized almost 400,000 local leaders to transform health and development in their communities.

Religious leaders are also a reliable source when it comes to information about medical programs. Some vocal minorities may use religious arguments and possible distrust of government to advocate against immunizing children, but by enlisting the help of leaders in the religious sector, medical programs can extend their reach.

Such an occasion was seen in both Angola in the late 1990s, and India in the late 2000s. In both instances, religious leaders helped to educate those who distrusted government officials.

Muslim leaders in India helped to reverse opposition to polio vaccines in certain areas where rumors and misconceptions about the government were rampant. In Angola, churches helped to end polio by making sure messages reached isolated populations — the same areas that often saw high illiteracy rates and poor media coverage.

Partnerships also play a key role in global health, as shown by case studies examined in The Lancet series.

When religious leaders partner with groups including government organizations, public-sector agencies and international development actors, effectiveness is often boosted.

Such an instance occurred in Sierra Leone in the 1980s when Muslim and Christian leaders united with UNICEF and led a campaign to increase immunization rates in children under the age of 1. By combining forces, rates increased from six percent to 75 percent.

By joining forces, not only can it be made possible that every child is vaccinated, but a successful partnership can also help generate long-term support for necessary health services for children.

Matt Wotus

Sources: Medical Xpress, UNICEF
Photo: Cross Catholic