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American Priest Brings AIDS Relief to Kenyan Slum


In the Kenyan capital Nairobi lives a priest named Father Ed Phillips. For the past 14 years, Phillips has tended to the sick in one of the world's largest slums and conducted groundbreaking, but unheralded, research on AIDS. Nick Wadhams has the story for VOA.

It was in 1993 Father Ed Phillips came to understand the devastating effect of AIDS. People were dying by the hundreds with no help from the Kenyan government or anyone else.

The Mathare slum, where sewage runs down the streets, was huge, but its people seemed invisible beyond the tin shacks where they lived.

At first, all he could do was help Mathare's AIDS patients die with as much dignity, and as little pain, as possible. In those days, he and his nurses were seen as angels of death.

Fourteen years later, Phillips' Eastern Deanery AIDS Relief Program has treated more than 40,000 patients for AIDS and tuberculosis. He helped shape Kenya's national AIDS and TB policy, met President Bush and testified before the U.S. Congress.

Father Phillips' research routinely anticipates breakthroughs announced with fanfare somewhere else a year or two later. All this from a missionary with no medical training beyond the books he has read, the conferences he has attended, and the patients his staff treat in Mathare.

"We just were responding to what we saw as a serious pastoral need that no one was talking about," Phillips said. "So people were dying, we found out what they were dying of, no one was talking about it. So we just responded to a serious need in the world we were working in, in that section of the city."

On a recent day, Phillips headed into Mathare to visit patients. The priest is a hero here, well known and loved. Patients who cannot afford treatment, who would likely die without his help, welcome him happily.

The first thing to do is find an escort to guide him through Mathare. After some time, one of Phillips' assistants with the Eastern Deanery, James, locates a man who will be able to navigate between the rival gangs that control the slum.

"So this gentleman is in charge of this area. And he can guarantee the safety of visitors? Of course yes, of course yes," James said. "As long as we are
together, there is no problem."

He was joined by two nurses from his program, Jane and Charity, who bring him to a woman named Julia, who has given birth to a child three days before. Her home is tiny, just big enough for a bed, a television stand, and a couple of chairs.

Father Phillips looks on as Charity inspects the child. He explains this is an AIDS affected family.

"Well, she's on anti-retroviral drugs now, the husband's on anti-retroviral drugs, the two-year-old baby is on anti-retroviral drugs, but she would probably be dead, the baby would be dead by now if they were not with us."

The 60-year-old Phillips was raised near Boston in the northeastern U.S. state of Massachusetts. Ordained by the Roman Catholic Church in 1974, he moved to Tanzania as a missionary with Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, whose members live overseas for the rest of their lives. He has spent more years in Africa than in the United States, and his Swahili has long been fluent, though it still bears a Boston accent.

He says things changed for his program in 2003, with President Bush's $15 billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR. Criticized by some for its focus on faith-based organizations, the program has been a boon for Phillips, The Eastern Deanery's budget is now just less than $2 million, almost all of it from PEPFAR

Father Phillips' program has a staff of 140 and is a leading provider of anti-retroviral drugs in Kenya. It has shown that nurses, not physicians, can be responsible for administering the drugs, an idea that is just starting to take hold in the West. Phillips has also built the program to be run entirely by Kenyans.

That means it can continue long after he is gone, something he worries about because fewer and fewer priests are heading abroad.

"I have no expectation for a member of my society to follow up on me. Vocations in the American Church are not a big issue right now," Phillips said. "So that has a major impact. Then you add on second thing, you want to become a priest, you ant to become a brother and then do you want to work overseas, that adds on an additional dynamic. Just do what you have to do, keep on working, and our whole concept is, my system is set up, honest to God, if I take a heart attack tonight and die, the system, it should run itself."

As Phillips leaves the slum, children emerge to greet him. He responds with handshakes, high-fives and Swahili greetings.

Back at the office, Phillips laughs about the surprising turn his life has taken. He has helped invent a simple ointment that effectively eases skin rashes. And he has won over countless doctors with talks he has given at conferences around the world.

People confuse him with a medical doctor so often that he has even got a running joke. Doctors will inevitably ask what area of medicine he specializes in.

"G.P.," he will tell them. "General Practitioner?" comes the inevitable response. "Nope," Phillips will reply. "General Priest."

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