Members of the Katuba Association of AIDS widows, who have received care from the Excellence Center, in Lubumbashi, DR Congo. Health campaigner Simbi Isabelle is second from right.
By David Tereshchuk*
July 11, 2013—Seemingly endless conflict, then struggles to get peace to work, have made the Democratic Republic of the Congo a challenging country in which to deliver to citizens the services they need.
Good health, not easily achieved at the best of times, has been rendered an even rarer commodity by the tumultuous disruptions that came with years of warfare.
But with support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), a health center known in French as Centre d’Excellence, located in Lubumbashi in southeastern DR Congo, is working, with some remarkable success, to deliver just that—lasting good health.
The Excellence Center is focused on combating HIV and AIDS, and UMCOR’s support of it grows out of the organization’s anti-malaria work in Africa. The center has benefited from UMCOR’s partnership with The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and with Santé Rural (Rural Health), or SANRU.
It has grown since its creation in 2006 to now employ an all-volunteer staff of 16 medical doctors, 14 nurses, and 3 psychiatrists. Over those seven years, the patient caseload has increased from 342 to an extraordinary 3,681. About three quarters of those patients are now medically stable.
The founder and director is Dr. Joe Kabongo, who possesses a valuable range of specialties. He is an expert in HIV and also is credentialed in neurology and psychiatry. He says of HIV and AIDS, “This became my cause for the simple reason that the problem was so great, especially among children.”
Public awareness of the dangers of HIV and AIDS and how to prevent and counter them, is central to the Excellence Center’s multifaceted effort. The center performs 500 to a thousand HIV tests every month—and each patient tested is required to see a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist conveys vitally important information about the disease and talks with the patient about how to achieve and maintain good health both individually and as part of the community.
Tests that prove positive lead, of course, to treatment, for which careful monitoring is crucial. “It is so vital,” Kabongo says, “that the training and sensitization are thoroughly emphasized and made effective.”
Groups dedicated to counteracting the stigma HIV and AIDS still carry meet at the Excellence Center. These discussion groups then fan out to the community and relay their message of community acceptance and embrace of those affected by HIV and AIDS.
Simbi, an HIV-positive widow who has been medically stable for nine years, is very much a part of this outreach network. She is an active member of the three-year-old Katuba Association. The group is made up of 24 AIDS widows who work together raising chickens—once a hundred, soon to be five hundred—and who also make it their mission to share a message of AIDS prevention.
“It is my responsibility, says Simbi, “to help educate patients and the community. HIV/AIDS doesn’t necessarily kill. If you have AIDS, it is the secondary illnesses that can kill you. So my message is: If you know the facts about HIV and AIDS, you can stay healthy and live a full life.”
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*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to UMCOR.org