Religious groups are an under-used health resource that could help achieve universal healthcare and accelerate the medical response to disease outbreaks, health experts said on Tuesday.
Faith-based organizations such as the Islamic Relief or the Salvation Army are the only health providers in some regions and the medical community should build on their experience, reach and influence to save lives, a study published in the Lancet medical journal said.
"Religious groups are major players in the delivery of healthcare, particularly in hard-to-reach and rural areas that are not adequately served by government," Edward Mills, the author of the study and a senior epidemiologist at Global Evaluative Sciences in Canada, said in a statement.
During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa faith groups were key mediators, persuading communities to drop their custom of embracing the dead, and providing vital medical services and support.
In Sierra Leone, Muslim and Christian leaders led the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF) campaign which increased immunization rates in children to 75 percent from 6 percent.
"It is time for the general medical community to recognize the magnitude of services offered (by faith-based groups) and partner or support (them) to provide long-standing improvements in health," Mills said.
Faith-based groups already provide immunization, anti-malaria campaigns, maternal health and HIV services, especially in countries with weak public health systems, the study said.
World leaders are due to adopt new development targets, such as ending poverty, reducing child mortality and tackling climate change later this year to replace eight expiring UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are expected to be adopted at a UN summit in September.