May 1, 2009


AIDS and condoms

Can it be true that the distribution of condoms only makes the problem of AIDS worse?

That is what Pope Benedict XVI said during a press conference while flying to Africa in March. A number of questions from reporters were submitted to him in advance and he chose to answer one concerning the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

He said that the Church can help bring answers to the AIDS problem, but then he said: “One cannot overcome the problem with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem.”

Not surprisingly, the secular media ridiculed his statement. How could the distribution of condoms possibly increase the problem? Doesn’t he know that condoms are the solution to the problem of AIDS?

That has been the conventional wisdom. It is the reason the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has distributed an estimated 10 billion condoms to underdeveloped countries.

If condoms are the answer, though, why is the AIDS problem so severe despite their distribution in Africa? The more condoms distributed, the higher the rate of HIV infections. More than 22 million Africans are now living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That is about 67 percent of all HIV-positive people in the world.

Almost three out of every four AIDS deaths in 2007 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa—1.6 million out of a total of 2.1 million. New infections during 2007 totaled 2.5 million worldwide, 1.7 million of which were in Africa.

In Kenya alone, at least 1.5 million people have died from AIDS since 1984.

This writer has visited schools in both Kenya and South Africa where teenage students have lost both parents to AIDS. Those students are determined that it won’t happen to them. The possibility of contracting HIV/AIDS is a powerful incentive to refrain from sex.

Pope Benedict insists that what he calls “the humanization of sexuality” and sexual responsibility are the answers to the AIDS problem. Sexual abstinence before marriage and faithfulness in marriage will prevent HIV.

The distribution of condoms, though, tends to encourage sexual promiscuity, which is why they make the problem of AIDS worse. Condoms cannot be relied upon to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, but they often give those who use them a false sense of security.

Of course, sexual abstinence before marriage is difficult, but it is not impossible.

This was the basic thrust of a column that appeared in the March 29 issue of The Washington Post. It was written by Edward Green, a senior research scientist at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, who has studied AIDS prevention in developing countries.

Green took the mainstream media to task for its criticism of Pope Benedict and noted that several studies published recently in several major scientific journals confirm the pontiff’s statement.

In his column, Green made it clear that he is not “anti-condom” in general, but does not support them as the primary way to fight AIDS in Africa.

This fact actually should lend greater weight in society at large to the pope’s argument since Green is agreeing with the pope on scientific grounds alone.

In making his argument, Green noted a successful AIDS prevention program in Uganda, Kenya’s southern neighbor.

Its president, Yoweri Museveni, has long championed sexual abstinence as the best way to conquer AIDS. He has accused the United States of promoting the use of condoms in Africa “for selfish reasons.” Uganda has done better than any other country in Africa in slowing down the rate of HIV infections.

One of the reasons that Pope Benedict chose to speak about AIDS during that press conference on the plane is because the Catholic Church has made real progress in helping to fight AIDS, especially by encouraging the use of

anti-retroviral drugs and encouraging sexual abstinence for young people.

It works. The Economist reported in its June 3, 2006, issue that figures from UNAIDS show that the proportion of people having sex before they reached the age of 15 had dropped in eight of the 11 African countries studied—parts of Africa where prevention methods hadn’t worked before.

“Whisper it softly in the halls of activism,” the article stated, “but abstinence before marriage and fidelity within it may actually be working.”

—John F. Fink

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