Africa: Pope’s Comments Stoke Condom Debate

Dakar — In his first public statement on condoms and AIDS earlier this week, Pope Benedict XVI reignited an international debate between religious leaders working with AIDS patients and European governments that fund anti-HIV programmes in developing countries.
En route to the capital Yaoundé in Cameroon, the pope said: “You can’t resolve [the problem of HIV] with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, it increases the problem.” In addition, he said a responsible attitude toward sex would help fight the disease.
The French Foreign Ministry responded this week that the Catholic leader’s comments are “a threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life.”

For couples in which one person is infected with HIV, with the consistent use of condoms there is a less than one percent rate of transmission, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).
About 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are infected with HIV, according to the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).
In 2007 three-quarters of the world’s AIDS deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa, as were two-thirds of all people living with HIV.

No change

Paul Sagna with the Catholic NGO AIDS Service Association in Senegal told IRIN there is nothing in the pope’s comments that warranted the latest outbreak of international concern. “The Catholic Church has not changed its position. The pope has a right to express the church’s convictions. Doctors have their scientific convictions and we have our religious convictions. What is the problem?”

Sagna said those who visit his NGO in Senegal’s capital Dakar know they will not find condoms there and will find instead other HIV support services.

Jose Manuel, parish priest of Maria Auxiliatrice Church in the Togolese capital Lomé, told IRIN that in addition to condoms there are other ways to avoid HIV infection, and that the Catholic Church has been at the forefront of HIV services. “We have long supported medication, therapy, accompanying patients on doctor visits. It is not the church’s role to promote condoms. But to say we are against the protection of human life because of our doctrine against condoms is incorrect.”

Catholic priest Pierre Marie Chanel with the Commission to Fight Sexually-Transmitted Diseases, based 50km north of Lomé, told IRIN that despite 20 years of condom distribution campaigns, the situation has improved little in Togo. “We cannot follow blindly [supporters of condoms] who may have ulterior profit motives. We need to instead delay the age youths engage in sexual relations and encourage abstinence.”

According to government records, infection rates in Togo have fallen from 4.7 percent in 2003 to 3.2 percent in 2006.
In addition to Catholic NGOs that teach abstinence, the government supports free condom distribution.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that the current supply of condoms in low- and middle-income countries falls well short of the number required to protect people from HIV.

Reality calls for condoms

Reverend Mulbah Reeves with the United Methodist Church in Liberia’s capital Monrovia told IRIN the Catholic Church’s doctrine against condoms does not address the reality in countries like Liberia, which is recovering from a 14-year civil war.

“No amount of HIV and AIDS education without talking about the use of condoms can help protect our younger generation,” said Reeves. “Our people will not adhere to abstaining from sex and neither will they be faithful to their partners. The only language they listen to is condoms.”

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