Sunday, January 10, 2010

Beware the grave dangers of faith healing

Sunday Nation 10 January 2010

Every weekend, television viewers all over the country are treated to a variety of Christian religious services on almost all the available TV channels.

In a country that pays nominal homage to religious freedom, this may be seen as a good thing, although some may argue that all religions need to be given equal exposure to the airwaves.

Some of the programmes are purely evangelistic in nature, preaching the word of God with the aim of strengthening believers and converting those considered to be “non-believers”.

Other programmes, however, incorporate extra “attractions”, including parading people with various illnesses and disorders, praying for them and pronouncing them “healed” from whatever affliction.

Most of the healing shown on national TV is of the “harmless” kind – the lame walking, the blind seeing, “demons” exorcised and so on and so forth.

These types of healing may be referred to as harmless because they only impact on the health of the “afflicted”, and any impact they have on others is often positive.

Aside from questions raised about some evangelists who have professional actors in their retinues to demonstrate their healing powers, purporting to heal people with physical disabilities can only serve to raise the spirits of those that yearn for this kind of healing and figuratively put the spring back in their step.

A more dangerous kind of “healing” is however becoming ever more common among these televangelists in their quest to attract more and more followers.

Many are now purporting to cure such chronic illnesses as cancer, HIV/Aids, hypertension and diabetes. They parade people they describe as suffering from these chronic illnesses and after a session of rambunctious “prayer” and intonations declare them healed of their conditions.

The first tragedy is that many people with these chronic illnesses actually believe they are healed and stop taking their medications or attending regular follow-up with their usual health care providers.

The end result is often deterioration of their conditions and many die sooner than they would have had they continued with medical care.

The second tragedy, which is bigger from a public health point of view, concerns HIV/Aids. Preachers who claim to heal people living with virus are many, and due to the huge burden of HIV in this country, their numbers keep increasing with each passing day.

Being desperate for a cure, many people with HIV/Aids (or any other “incurable” disease) will do anything as long as they are promised perfect health.

Reports abound of people who have sold all their precious possessions to pay a faith healer or other charlatans claiming to cure HIV/Aids only to eventually succumb to the disease and other complications including mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

The situation is even more tragic because after a session of prayer, some patients will go home truly believing they are healed. This significantly increases the risk of spreading the virus through unprotected sex with partners who wrongfully believe that the virus has been banished through prayer.

Responsible practitioners of religion will tell anyone who cares to listen that a condition such as HIV/Aids has no known cure at this point in time.

However, there are medications available today that reduce viral replication and control opportunistic infections, markedly improving quality of life and increasing the productive lifespan of the people living with the virus.

It is irresponsible that despite repeated disclaimers by medical experts that this condition has no known cure, these televangelists continue to deceive members of the public that they can mysteriously make it go away.

Talking to health workers in various facilities all over the country, one will hear stories of patients who stop attending clinic or taking their prescribed medications only to appear after a very long time in terrible condition.

Asked why they stopped using their medications or attending clinic, many have replied that they were convinced that they were healed by some preacher at a crusade or some televangelist on TV.

It may be possible that these faith healers truly believe in their own healing powers and are not willfully deceiving their followers. This is because after the “healing”, they hardly ever follow up on their “patients” to ascertain their conditions after a while.

Indeed, the reason they never see most of their “clients” again is because many die after discontinuing their usual health care following the “healing”.

Perhaps “faith healers” should be compelled to provide evidence of cure (through independent diagnostic tests) and continue follow-up of all their clients after the purported “cure”.

No one should be given a carte blanche to claim to cure all sorts of illness, when in fact all they do is profit from the misfortune of their unsuspecting “clients”.

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine

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