On the first leg of Benedict XVI’s first trip to Africa as Pope, a French journalist not surprisingly asked him about the African AIDS epidemic.In the minds of most people from the West, among such things as corruption, child soldiers, famine and witchcraft, Africa = Aids, and AIDS = condoms. He replied: “The scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem.” His brief answer provoked an international controversy and violent reactions in the Western press.
“Impeach the Pope!” wrote the Washington Post. “The Pope is a disaster” reported the Daily Telegraph. The Seattle Times accused the Pope of living in an “alternate universe”. “Grievously wrong!” said the New York Times. “There is no evidence that condom use is aggravating the epidemic and considerable evidence that condoms, though no panacea, can be helpful in many circumstances.”
Rather than basing the argument on emotions, business interests or ideology, the case for condoms must face scientific facts. A Harvard expert on AIDS prevention, Dr. Edward C. Green, said “the Pope is actually correct”. Dr. Green has written five books and over 250 peer-reviewed articles, and is an agnostic, not a Catholic. Last year, he wrote in the journal First Things that the never-enough-condoms explanation of the AIDS epidemic is driven “not by evidence, but by ideology, stereotypes and false assumptions.”
Dr. Green is not a lone voice. In an article in the leading British medical journal, The Lancet, James Shelton, of the US Agency for International Development, stated openly that one of the 10 damaging myths about the fight against AIDS is that condoms are the answer. “They have limited impact in generalised epidemics,” he wrote.
In 2004, an article in the journal- “Studies in Family Planning” admitted that “no clear examples have emerged yet of a country that has turned back a generalised epidemic primarily by means of condom promotion.” In fact, in Cameroon, precisely where the Pope was flying to when he made his “infamous” remarks, between 1992 and 2001 condom sales increased from 6 to 15 million, while HIV prevalence tripled, from 3 to 9 per cent.
After years of racking their brains about the high prevalence rate of AIDS in Africa, the most affected region in the world, which accounted for 72% of deaths from the disease in 2007, researchers are concluding that the reason is the widespread practice of “multiple concurrent partnerships.” Something that we have already learned in Uganda, where most new cases crop up among married people who have a mistress or boy-friend on the side.
In a highly-acclaimed 2007 book, The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight against AIDS, the medical journalist Helen Epstein admits that she had always attributed the epidemic to prostitution, poverty, discrimination against women and low condom use. But after observing that HIV rates were increasing despite high condom use, she realised that “multiple long-term partnerships”, which she referred to as the “superhighway of infections”, was the problem. Her conclusion: “a collective shift in sexual norms, especially partner reduction, is crucial.”
Dr. Green also pointed out that condoms “may even exacerbate HIV infection levels due to a phenomenon called risk compensation, or behavioural disinhibition. People take more sexual risks because they feel safer than is actually justified when using condoms.”
The experts are coming round to the conviction that the real, lasting solution is “partner reduction”, fidelity in marriage, something the Pope has been saying all along.
Dr. Green declared that the “faith-based communities have a comparative advantage in promoting the needed types of behaviour change, since these behaviours conform to their moral, ethical and scriptural teachings. What the churches are inclined to do anyway turns out to be what works best in AIDS prevention.”
But back to the controversy. In France it was roughest of all. Yet two MPs braved the stormy weather on their Blogs. One, Christian Vanneste, called for responsibility in medical research, a proper distribution of therapies and care of the sick; and said the “popular pack of hounds of materialists and hedonists is very far from being able to understand the (Pope’s) message. The solid mass of faithful gathered around the Pope at this moment is giving a better answer.”
The other, Jacques Remiller, accused the French political class of carrying out a “veritable witch-hunt against Benedict XVI”, and said the Western countries should stop considering the condom as the “only solution” to the problem of AIDS in Africa.
The short sentence of the Pope has flown much further than the French journalist expected and, despite its possibly mischievous intent, may eventually work against the pro-condom lobby. It will bring into the open a debate that must be argued with facts and scientific evidence and not with slogans, lazy thinking and prejudice, and an eye to big profits in the pharmaceutical industry.
Martyn Drakard, The author is a