LUSAKA, Zambia (BP)--No one in the clinic's waiting room is smiling -- except Anna Banda.
She chats happily with people at the Circle of Hope clinic on the outskirts of Lusaka, Zambia. There are few -- if any -- empty seats as they wait to be tested and treated for AIDS.
One mother leaves the clinic carrying bottles of medication in one hand and an infant in her other arm. A trash can overflows with empty medication boxes people have discarded before leaving the facility.
Banda knows all too well the pain these people are feeling.
Nearly six years ago, Banda was dying of AIDS. She shows a photograph of herself during her darkest days. In the picture she is not smiling. She sits on a bed with her shoulders slumped, staring blankly into the camera. She appears frail, sad and near death.
At that stage of the disease, many people die within days or months -- maybe a year if they are fortunate. According to UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) statistics, AIDS claims nearly 4,000 lives in sub-Saharan Africa every day.
As Banda's immune system began to shut down, she often felt weak, nauseated and unable to keep food down -- on the edge of becoming another AIDS statistic.
Then she began to take life-saving medication -- ART (antiretroviral therapy) -- and found encouragement at Circle of Hope clinic. A doctor put her on a strict regimen of medication each morning and evening.
Today, she appears to be the picture of health. She now works at the clinic, is studying to be a receptionist and recently got married. The medication Banda continues to take is not a cure, but if taken regularly, it can get people back on their feet, and living and even enjoying life again.
"Some don't believe it when I tell them I'm HIV-positive," she says. "They say, 'No, you're just trying to make us feel better.'"
NO LONGER A DEATH SENTENCE
AIDS continues to kill and infect thousands every day, but International Mission Board missionary Troy Lewis finally sees some progress. Lewis and his wife Tracey were appointed as missionaries in 2001. The couple from Dallas has two sons.
For the past decade, Lewis has led AIDS-related ministries in Zambia, joining forces with clinics like Circle of Hope. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Cooperative Program fund Southern Baptist missionaries' work overseas.
Having AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was, Lewis says.
"We've seen people get up off their sick bed and walk," he says. "The greater availability of antiretroviral therapy is saving lives."
Lewis' work has branched out not only to clinics, but also into working relationships with Baptist partners, local churches, ministries and other nongovernmental organizations to help get medication to people who need it. Clinics once limited to HIV testing are now distributing medication and a chance at a new life.
These partnerships have helped bolster AIDS education and training for those seeking new ways to help. Lewis also promotes ministries like LifeWay Christian Resources' True Love Waits, which teaches abstinence before marriage along with biblical principles.
Many of the churches Lewis works with help support more than 30,000 orphans and vulnerable children in six of Zambia's nine provinces. Lewis estimates they've also trained 1,700 caregivers to help those infected with AIDS.
Some provide home-based care for those who are unable to travel to see a doctor.
One morning, Lewis and a group of local Christian caregivers duck through the small opening of a dying man's hut about an hour from the capital city.
They are checking on Solomon, making sure he's taking his medication.
The man lies on a thin sheet on the floor of his hut. He used to be busy working in his fields. Today, he is inside, closed off from his community.
Solomon appears to be entering the last stages of AIDS. His clothes swallow his thin frame. Sitting up is a slow, difficult process. Although the outcome for Solomon looks grim, he recently began taking the ART medication to build up his immune system.
Though the number of deaths in sub-Saharan Africa has dropped slightly, people are still being infected and dying at a rapid rate and leaving behind thousands of orphaned children.
At times, keeping up with the latest AIDS statistics -- for instance, which African country's numbers are the worst -- can be overwhelming, Lewis admits.
"I used to have all of those right on my finger tips," he says. "Then I stopped looking at it so much -- it's just bad."
Some local Baptist churches have mobilized slowly during the past decade, but they are gaining traction, Lewis says. For some congregations, overcoming the negative image of AIDS still remains a challenge.
The church has not always been a safe place for people to reveal they have AIDS.
"Sometimes ... they did not have a church to lean back on," Lewis says. "There is a lot of stigma, a lot of discrimination."
Fighting the pandemic, he contends, boils down to finding hurting people and ministering to their needs like Jesus did.
"Doing ministry that touches the soul" as Lewis puts it. "People were so open to Jesus' message ... it got into their DNA that way."
Banda -- with her smile and new life -- prays that others will continue to find the happiness she has found. She also prays for a cure.
Banda remains confident in the Lord's power and love, adding, "My faith tells me that one day God is going to come through for those people who are providing the cure."
Alan James is a writer for the International Mission Board.
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