24/09/2012 08:28 BST

AIDS/HIV 'Faith Healers' In UK Churches Telling Followers To 'Stop Taking Medication'

Faith leaders in the UK are telling vulnerable people to stop taking life-saving drugs and their HIV can be cured through prayer in many African community groups, a new study has warned.

In seven different groups, members said they were pressured into stopping taking antiretroviral medication, according to the African Health Policy network.

Most respondents to the AHPN survey said they were "aware of more than one case of faith healing claims and pressure to stop taking medication. One member was aware of five cases."

And most said they believed the pastors, the majority Evangelical or Pentecostal Christians, when they said they could cure them.

Respondents, the majority of whom were reluctant to name specific churches or pastors, gave examples of the practice happening in Finsbury Park, Tottenham, and Woolwich, in London, as well as in Manchester and Leeds.

AHPN said the government needed to do more to educate people about the importance of taking their drugs but stressed that criminal sanctions would "push the problem underground".

"We call for local authorities to work with faith groups and ensure these negative messages are not put out."

Lisa Power, policy director of the Terence Higgins Trust, told The Huffington Post UK that they were hoping to educate more faith leaders, because many of the followers in African evangelical churches had learned to treat authorities with suspicion.

"Criminalising this would make religious martyrs of the people doing this, and that's the last thing we want," she said.

"We have to make it clear we are not against prayer or faith, and we know how beneficial it can be for people when they are suffering from ill health. But they need to take the HIV medication on top of faith work.

"Effectively, if you tell someone to stop taking their HIV medication you are helping to kill them, but it does not do any good going into these communities with that kind of language."

Last year, BBC London identified three people with HIV who died after they stopped taking antiretroviral drugs on the advice of their Evangelical Christian pastors.

One of the churches allegedly involved in the practice was the Synagogue Church Of All Nations, which has a UK base in Southwark, south London.

The BBC reported that the SCOAN website showed videos of people who say they have been cured of diseases.

Videos have been posted on the site of people in Nigeria who say they have been cured of HIV/AIDS.

The church is led by Pastor T B Joshua, Nigeria's third richest clergyman.

But Power said it was not an problem which occurred exclusively in African churches. "There are people of all races and religions who follow someone called Professor Peter Duesberg, who believes it is the HIV medication which can make you ill.

"They discourage the taking of HIV drugs too, and that can make people very ill indeed. It's not just a problem that happens in the African community."

The charity has been awarded £7m by the government to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among gay men and the African community, identified at the two most "at risk", in partnership with the Black Health Agency.

Some of the funding will go towards educating people about faith healing and medication.