Pastor Chris Oyakhilome of the Christ Embassy Church claims that he has the power to cure cancer and HIV through “the grace of God”.
It is a known fact that our country has the highest incidence of HIV infection in the world and that we have one of the largest antiretroviral (ARV) treatment programmes, with more than one million people enrolled.
In villages, towns, cities, townships and farms, people are confronted by the reality of HIV every day.
Hospital wards are packed with the skeletal bodies of people barely hanging onto life, seeking help as the human immunodeficiency virus devastates their bodies.
It is a reality that I have been confronted with as well, both in my work as a journalist covering the health beat and as an ordinary citizen of this country.
I have seen friends and relatives fade away, their bodies reduced to bundles of bones as they slowly succumbed to the virus.
I have also seen people coming back from the clutches of death to regain their health as a result of ARV treatment.
This return to health does not mean HIV has been cured, it is merely a sign that the body has regained its strength to fight back, hence those on ARV treatment should continue to take the drugs for the rest of their lives.
Today, almost 30 years after the virus was discovered, scientists tell us that there is no cure. And ongoing research does not point to a breakthrough any time soon either.
Just last month, the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa ruled that local television channel e.tv must withdraw all Christ Embassy Church advertisements claiming that Oyakhilome can faith-heal HIV.
This followed a complaint by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which was lodged after a Cape Town doctor notified it that one of his patients had stopped taking her drug-resistant TB medication because she believed she could be healed by Oyakhilome’s church.
The TAC said the woman became ill again and died, after transmitting extreme drug-resistant TB to her children.
Now we can only guess how many other people out there, convinced by claims of Oyakhilome’s healing powers, are dicing with death by going off their medication, hoping to be healed by a miracle.
Clearly, such claims have the potential to stunt the battle against HIV, particularly in a country that is still battling to undo the damage caused by government denial.
In fact, for anyone – including Oyakhilome, who is revered by his followers as a “man of God” – to claim that they are capable of healing HIV is tantamount to genocide and they should face prosecution.
The country’s constitution recognises religious rights and freedom of association, but we should guard against these becoming a vehicle for people to make misleading claims.
Oyakhilome and others should be allowed to run their churches and preach the gospel, but matters of HIV should be left to the relevant bodies.
Unless, of course, Oyakhilome can prove us wrong.
Then, I guess even the national minister of health wouldn’t mind having the “man of God” going on a crusade in all our hospitals and unleashing his healing powers on all those infected with HIV.
If Oyakhilome can prove us wrong and empty those hospital wards of HIV sufferers, then I am prepared to forsake the world and become his life-long servant.
But until then, I will continue to regard his claims as a devious, pernicious and irresponsible ploy to lure people to his church.
And if he truly is a “man of God”, Oyakhilome should be honest enough to renounce his claims in public if he is not going to take his healing powers to our hospitals. We are waiting ...