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Why the Pope is Right about Condoms and HIV

In the War against HIV, condoms are a less effective strategy when epidemic-level infection rates occur.

Pope Benedict XVI

This week, Pope Benedict has been visiting Africa. No surprise when on the plane down to Cameroon, the pope fielded a few questions from the working press traveling with him. According to the Vatican News Service, here's what he had to say about condoms and HIV/AIDS:

Answering a question on the Catholic Church's approach to HIV/AIDS, considered by some as unrealistic and ineffective, the Pope said: "It is my belief believe that the most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/AIDS is in fact the Catholic Church and her institutions. ... The problem of HIV/AIDS cannot be overcome with mere slogans. If the soul is lacking, if Africans do not help one another, the scourge cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanisation of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with the suffering, a readiness - even through personal sacrifice - to stand by those who suffer".

In a matter of hours, the HIV/AIDS establishment took out the heavy artillery against the pope's words, even as they misinterpreted his comments. Here's one example from the Voice of America:

French Foreign Ministry Spokesman Eric Chevallier voiced sharp concern over the consequences of the pope's comments, telling reporters that while it is not up to the French government to pass judgment on church doctrine, Paris believes such comments are a threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life. Vatican Spokesman Federico Lombardi is defending the church's approach to AIDS. He says Pope Benedict is putting the emphasis on education. Lombardi told reporters in Yaounde that developing an ideology of confidence in condoms is not correct because it fails to focus on personal responsibility.

OK. Who's got the greater hold on the truth of this situation about condoms and fighting the spread of HIV? I've been following the HIV and the church story since 1994. So here are my five reasons why condoms are part of the problem:

1. People who have lots of sex with lots of partners do not use condoms consistently every single time.

2. The use of condoms creates a false sense of security for people who are most at risk of getting or transmitting HIV.

3. As the rate of HIV infection grows in a general population, it spreads much more quickly than condoms can be distributed.

4. Programs to distribute condoms for free to all parties are continually subject to political, religious, ethnic, and cultural barriers that blunt their effectiveness.

5. Government-supported efforts to promote condom use have the result (intentional or unintentional) of also promoting extra- or pre-marital sexual relations, also putting a population at risk of other sexually transmitted diseases.

Don't get me wrong. I think the ABC concept, Abstinence, Fidelity, or Condoms, is the real deal. Condoms do have a role to play. Unfortunately, condom use has become part of the problem and part of the solution.

Agree, disagree? Email me here.

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