Public Release: 

New study probes how religion can help HIV/AIDS patients

University of Cincinnati

CINCINNATI -- After a University of Cincinnati (UC) study revealed that people living with the HIV virus felt alienated by their churches following diagnosis, researchers began to explore the feelings of religious leaders and congregations about the illness.

Previous research showed among other things that black patients claimed to have become more spiritual and that more white than black patients felt alienated from their religious communities after HIV diagnosis.

Now, Magdalena Szaflarski, PhD, and Joel Tsevat, MD, both researchers at UC's Institute for the Study of Health, have received a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study how religious organizations respond to HIV/AIDS within their congregations and communities.

The grant will fund a two-year study in which UC researchers will interview clergy from 150 different religious organizations in Greater Cincinnati and compare their responses with 60 HIV/AIDS patients who have or haven't felt welcome in their congregations.

"There isn't much research on how churches, synagogues and other places of worship feel about HIV or AIDS, and the research that was done is mostly from the 1980s and '90s," Szaflarski says, adding that the study will describe the current levels of HIV-related involvement on the part of religious organizations and highlight factors shaping religious organizations' responses to HIV/AIDS.

"We're interested in seeing the organizations' viewpoints," Szaflarski continued. "We want to see if these affiliations can improve levels of support provided to patients with HIV/AIDS and create better quality of life for patients."

In a previous study published in December 2006, Szaflarski, Tsevat and colleagues showed that spirituality and religion play an important role in shaping patients' perceptions of living with HIV/AIDS.

In a report on the study, Sian Cotton, PhD, assistant professor of family medicine, said the team found that patients with HIV/AIDS, particularly black patients, claimed to have become more spiritual after diagnosis.

However, more white patients felt alienated from their religious communities than did blacks.

"Twenty-four percent of all patients felt alienated in their religious communities, 60 percent did not feel welcome, and 10 percent changed their place of worship because of their HIV status," says Szaflarski.

In the new study, Szaflarski says she wants to look closely at the role of black churches in the lives of patients with HIV.

"There's a large population of African-Americans affected by HIV/AIDS, and they seem to gain a lot of knowledge and strength from their religious communities," she says, adding that about 50 percent of participants, again, mostly blacks, believed their spirituality helped them live longer.

Researchers hope the new study will help discover existing support groups and reveal how these social networks could increase patients' self-worth and prolong their lives.

"People with HIV and AIDS tend to live much longer than they used to, and if they have a good social support network, they have a better chance of living a longer, more normal life," says Szaflarski. "Religious organizations tend to raise social capital. They are social groups promoting cohesiveness and support.

"We want to know how people living with HIV/AIDS could benefit from these organizations."


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