SCOPE partners with medical and faith communities to improve health in Ethiopia through outreach, education, and training.

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Religion, culture, and health are so closely tied that it is often difficult to decipher where one ends and the other begins. Strengthening Care Opportunities through Partnerships in Ethiopia (SCOPE) was founded on just such a realization. The founders were spurred by the conviction to promote justice in all its forms, not the least of which is the right to access life saving health care. With these things in mind, University Presbyterian Church (UPC) in Seattle, WA and the Global Health Department at the University of Washington (UW) reached out to the University of Gondar (UoG) and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (EOC) in Gondar, Ethiopia and a partnership was born.

 

The prevalence of HIV in the North Gondar zone of Northwest Ethiopia is twice that of the national rate. Despite access to HIV testing and treatment, participation in these services remains low. This is a problem, particularly for pregnant women; less than 1/3 access any antenatal (ANC) services at all, and only 10% deliver their babies with a skilled birth attendant. Out of the 14,000 HIV+ births in Ethiopia in 2010, just 34% received the preventative treatment (PMTCT) necessary to avoid infecting their infant with HIV.

 

Many factors contribute to these dismal statistics. SCOPE is working to change just one of them, with the potential for enormous impact. Many women cite “religious reasons” for not seeking care or adhering to treatment regimens. 90% of the North Gondar zone’s population are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, and despite the EOC’s official support of antenatal care (ANC), HIV testing, and antiretroviral treatment (ART), many people use holy water instead of drugs, stop their medications during times of religious fasting, and call on the name of saints rather than seek care from trained healthcare providers.

 

Religious leaders in this context are held in the highest regard, possess absolute authority, and, therefore have a profound capacity to affect the health of their community. SCOPE aims to use this existing dynamic to improve the health of families and communities affected by HIV. Since its inception SCOPE’s work has lead to HIV testing for 800 people including the archbishop and 55 priests through a single testing campaign hosted by the North Gondar Diocese. SCOPE also provided training for 25 priests through an HIV/AIDS priest training program. Both events publically displayed support for HIV testing and treatment on the part of the church.

 

In 2013, SCOPE’s research culminated in the Soul Fathers as Health Educators pilot project, which was implemented in the Woleka health center just outside the city of Gondar. The North Gondar Diocese chose 4 religious women and 4 priests to undergo training at the health center. They were trained in ANC, PMTCT, and the importance of HIV testing for pregnant women and their male partners. After this intensive training, priests and religious women counseled and refer pregnant women in their communities to attend health centers for testing and care. At the pilot site, the project increased the number of women seeking ANC by 20%. The project will be implemented in three additional health centers in the Gondar area over the next year.

 

Beyond the numbers, SCOPE is building bridges and fostering relationships that positively impact the health of communities in the North Gondar region. Navigating organizational, cultural, and financial challenges have certainly been part of the reality for SCOPE; however past successes along with the enormous potential in partnering with the behavioral change agents already in place to spread health messages far outweighs these challenges. Although Christianity in Ethiopia may outwardly look quite different from its Western counterpart, they share the call of Christ to seek justice and peace in this world. In the end, SCOPE’s hope is to participate in this call.

 

Emily Robinson

September 2014