Solving Health Issues in Ethiopia with Religion

By Iulia O. Basu-Zharku
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/3 |

Dealing with the issue of healthcare is no small challenge for any country, either rich or poor. For Ethipoia, health issues represent a major challenge. Tuberculosis, malaria, mental illnesses, and especially HIV/AIDS are health issues with which Ethiopia continues to grapple. In the battle to prevent and eradicate such maladies, religion has become an invaluable asset.

In the case of official religions, such as Christianity and Islam, the prevention of health problems is aided via resource mobilization, community empowerment, the dissemination of health information through religious institutions, and assistance in the care of AIDS patients by establishing hospices and other community resources.

Traditional religious beliefs and practices can be another major health resource, often overlooked by the mainstream medical system. They can not only provide relief in the case of some maladies, such as mental illnesses, but they are also a way to bring together the community in healing and caring for the patient, and even mediating between the traditional community and various Western, biomedical prevention projects.

A Brief Introduction to Ethiopia’s Religions

Ethiopia’s population of 76 million makes it the 3rd most populous African country.1 The most numerous ethnicities are the Omoro (40% of the population), the Amhara and Tigre, who together constitute 32% of the Ethiopian population.2 Out of the 76 million people, 61% are Christian (51% Orthodox), and 33% Muslim.3 Another, more recent estimation, puts the number of Orthodox Christians at 71% of the population.4 In the 4th century, Christianity was introduced, via Egypt, and accordingly, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is Coptic5 in orientation (claiming that Jesus had only one divine-human combined nature).

From the first bishop, Frumentius, until 1959, Ethiopia did not have a native bishop. In 1959, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church also became autocephalous.6 The Bible was translated into Ge’ez in 615 A.D., and after Axum declined due in part to Muslim invasions, a resurgence in Ethiopian Christian culture took place after 1135: churches and monasteries were rebuilt, manuscripts illustrated and cult objects beautifully ornamented and adorned with precious stones. The EOC practices are similar to those of other Orthodox churches: it has 7 sacraments (baptism, confirmation, penance, Holy Communion, unction of the sick, matrimony and holy order), 5 faith pillars (the Trinity, incarnation, baptism, Eucharist, the resurrection of the dead), and fasting (no meat, dairy products, alcohol or sex) is respected.7

Woman receiving receiving nutritional support in southern Ethiopia

An Ethiopian woman, "Tiru," with her baby daughter, receiving nutritional support in southern Ethiopia, thanks to CARE International. Photo: Tanya Axisa/Department for International Development CC-2

However, it retains some Judaic features, such as having an Ark of Covenant, respects the Sabbath and the difference between clean and unclean meats. Also, women enter through the right side of the church, separated from men.8 The present church language is Amharic, the lingua franca of the country. Less than half a million Ethiopians are Catholics9 and less than 10% are Protestants.

The other major religion in Ethiopia is Islam, which entered Ethiopia during the Axumite kingdom. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Muslims wanted to conquer and destroy the Christian power in Ethiopia but were defeated in 1543, and subsequent attacks reappeared in 1875 and 1888, but were always foreign. Most of the Muslims are Oromo,10 an ethic group of people originally from the southwest of Ethiopia, who converted after their association with another ethic group, the Galla.11 The Oromo, the largest Cushitic-speaking group of people,12 used to live as independent neighbors of the Christian kingdom of Abbysinia,13 and interacted with the Muslim traders. But it was only in the nineteenth century, with the rise of the war leaders, Muslim traders finally found a propitious ground to spread their religion, in a slow, strong process of syncretism.14

An Introduction to Ethiopia’s Health Issues

Ethiopia has a long history of disease, epidemics and famine, mainly due to poor sanitation, a lack of potable water (only 25% of rural population and 75% of the urban population have clean water), malnutrition, and uneven concentration of health services. It is estimated that there is one doctor for every 40,000 Ethiopians, 87 hospitals with 12,000 beds for over 70 million people. The primary killing diseases are HIV/AIDS (the major killer), perinatal-maternal conditions, malaria, tuberculosis, and diarrhea. HIV/AIDS is a major problem, Ethiopia having the world’s third highest number of HIV-infected persons.15 The national prevalence stands at 5.4% with a prevalence three times higher for women than for men,16 and as of 2003 it was estimated that almost 4 million people were infected.

In 2004, an estimated 250,000 children under age 5 were HIV-positive, and an estimated 1.2 million Ethiopian children had been orphaned by AIDS. Ninety percent of the reported AIDS cases in Ethiopia affect people between the ages of 20 and 49.17 Malaria is another problem, with children the most frequent victims, being endemic in 70% of Ethiopia.18 An estimated 49.7 million people were at risk for infection in 2005.19 As regards tuberculosis, the incidence is 370 per 100,000 of the population, and the mortality due to TB is 88 per 100,000 of the population.

Compounding this problem is the fact that 30% (rural) and 60% (urban) of the TB patients are also HIV-positive.20 In terms of children’s health, the statistics of 2005 showed that 60.4% of children between 12 and 23 months were vaccinated for BCG, 31.9% for DPT (3), 44.7% for Polio, and 34.9% for measles. Moreover, 10.5% (weight-for-height measure) or 46.5% (height-for-age measure) of children younger than 5 were found to be malnourished.21 Also, many children die as infants: the mortality rate in 2000 was 113 per 1,000. In general, the maternal and infant mortality rates in Ethiopia are amongst the highest in the world.22

"Official" Religioin Helping Solve Ethiopia’s Health Issues

The use of healthcare services and prevention methods for various diseases is influenced by the cultural milieu in which one lives. In this, Ethiopia is no exception, and although such factors as the level of education and socio-economic status are important and play major roles in what prevention and healing routes people decide to take, cultural factors, and among these religion, are equally important. Because Ethiopia is one of the countries with the highest number of HIV-infected people and with the highest maternity and infant mortality rates, it is interesting to see how religion plays into the use of prevention and healthcare services in these cases.

For example, religion seems to play a role in women’s decisions to seek antenatal care. A study done in 2000, showed that, in urban areas, more Orthodox (27.5%), Muslim (28.3%), and Protestant (24.8%) women tended to use antenatal care than women following traditional religions (11.3%). In general, Muslim women were 30% more likely to seek such services, in contrast to women from traditional faiths who were 50% less likely to seek them compared to Orthodox/Catholic women. In rural areas, Muslim women were 1 ½ times more likely while women from traditional religions were 40% less likely to seek antenatal care than Orthodox/Catholic women.23

In the case of delivery care, the situation seems to be much grimmer. Only 6% of women received such care and the women in urban areas far surpassed women in rural areas in seeking such care. Out of this small number of women that actually sought delivery care, more Orthodox/Catholic women (8.1%) used these services than Protestant women (4.5%), Muslim women (4.3%), and women following traditional religions (1.4%).24

Another case is the use of contraceptives. A study concerning this issue was done in 2004, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s region, a federal region that accounts for one-tenth of Ethiopia’s land, has the highest population density and is one of least urbanized regions. This region is plagued by high infant mortality and low levels of contraceptive use. In addition, it is a highly diverse region in terms of its population (80 ethnic groups), and culture, especially religion.

The most numerous are the Protestant (35% of the population), followed by Orthodox (28%), Muslims (17%), and followers of traditional religions (15%).25 Results showed that Muslims are 15% as likely to use birth control as Protestants, and it increases to 30% if ethnicity is controlled for, and to 48% when compositional factors are controlled for. This suggests that values of women’s role express religious differences, but it also shows that exposure to ethnic and religious diversity in a community increases the likelihood of birth limitation,26 something worth noting for future birth control intervention programs.

Since 2000, at an International Conference on AIDS, the involvement of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the prevention of HIV/AIDS substantially increased. Through its vast network of church members (the 2000 estimation was of 500,000 priests, deacons and monks and 35,000 churches and monasteries), the EOC could be a major player in developing and implementing programs of prevention against this epidemic. Thus, the EOC Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission (DICAC) started a program in 1998 that provided training for priests on HIV/AIDS in order for them to act as counselors in the EOC structure.

Two special focuses were put on the Amhara region, where the program included training for all religious denominations and targeted priests, preachers and Sunday school students as future communicators and counselors, and on the Tigray region, where the program was initiated and institutionalized in the EOC structure. Through this, the EOC mobilized its resources to implement this HIV/AIDS prevention program at national, regional and community levels.27 In addition to this, Patriarch Paulos hold large yearly rallies called “Save the People,” and encouraged the promotion of anti-AIDS messages in worship services, Sunday schools and Bible studies.28

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