ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Shivering under a tattered blanket, a young woman tries to sleep at the foot of the mist-shrouded Entoto Mountain, north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Nearby, a mother and child huddle together in the early morning cold.
“I decided to come to Entoto to seek a cure from the holy water after a doctor told me that I am HIV-positive,” Abebech Alemu, 35, said.
“I am a follower of the Orthodox faith. I strongly believe that I will be cured by drinking the holy water rather than drugs,” she added.
Ethiopia is one of the countries hardest hit by the AIDS epidemic, with more than 1.5 million people, including 100,000 children, living with the HIV virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says the epidemic was previously an urban problem, but the virus has started to spread to rural areas where an estimated 85 percent of the country’s 75 million people live.
In Ethiopia’s remotest corners, awareness of health and medical issues is very low, and many in isolated communities believe HIV infection is akin to a plague or curse from God.
Abebech is among thousands of Ethiopians who trek from far-flung parts of the Horn of Africa nation to what they believe are holy springs, searching for cures. Many hope to rid themselves of HIV/AIDS.
At the site of the holy spring on Entoto near St. Mary Church — built by Emperor Menelik II at the end of the 19th century — a priest holding a large wooden cross stands on high ground.
Below, partly naked and trembling patients line up to be immersed in the water and blessed by the priest. Each patient carries away about five litres of the water, which they drink every day believing it will cure their ailments.
Monks have built awnings made of sticks and straw around St. Mary Church to shelter the wealthier visitors, but most live in the open, surviving by begging.
“I know about the free distribution of HIV medicine, but I have decided not to take it. I am convinced I could be cured by the holy water,” Abebech said.
Head priest Bahetawi Gebremedhin Demise said he came to Entoto 10 years ago after God told him in a dream to go to the deep ravine under the mountain where a holy spring would cure the sick.
“Once they feel better, I send them back to the hospital where they were declared HIV-positive. They come back with a negative certificate,” he said.
Bahetawi Gebremedhin said 1,390 HIV-positive people had been cured in the past year alone, according to his records. He said the spring had healed more than 500,000 people, including many foreigners, suffering from different ailments.
“This is a place of God where all those who believe in the Almighty are being cured. People from all walks of life who seek God’s mercy come to us and we try and help everyone irrespective of their creed, religion or nationality,” he said.
But Dr. Solomon Zewdu, administrator of Johns Hopkins University HIV/AIDS Drugs Distribution Center in Addis Ababa, said he had appealed to the Orthodox Patriarch to tell HIV-positive people that they can take anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) along with the water.
“HIV drugs are life-saving. Those who are drinking the holy water can also take the drugs. I do not see any contradiction,” he said, adding he had seen patients abandoning their hospital beds and the ARV regime, opting for holy water.
Only 33,000 people in Ethiopia are receiving ARV treatment, according to the WHO. In many developing countries, life-saving drugs are either unavailable or too expensive for millions living with the virus.
“Those possessed by the devil come in chains, others on a wheelchair or on the backs of men, still others, who lost their eyesight, are led here by friends,” Bahetawi Gebremedhin said.
“After a few weeks of intense prayer and religious rites, they are baptized with the holy water and they get cured.”