Comment »Posted on Sunday 12 April 2009 at 10:23 am by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

It’s quite easy to think of the Pope as a crackpot old man, like the Duke of Edinburgh. Only the Pope is, by all accounts, a very intelligent man, who is seen as a father figure by over a billion people. You might think, then, that he’d want to consider the facts before offering advice about how to tackle a disease that kills 8,000 people a day. Facts like the fact that correct and consistent use of condoms gives almost complete protection against HIV infection.

‘You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,’  he said last month on a trip to Africa. ‘On the contrary, it increases the problem.’

No one is suggesting that the distribution of condoms, by itself, is going to eradicate Aids overnight, but the suggestion that condoms could make things worse is pretty indefensible. That hasn’t stopped Benedict’s cronies from trying.

On Friday, the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, went on the Today programme. When he was asked about the Pope’s statement that condoms could make things worse, he said ‘I am not sure that’s exactly what he said at all’. All the journalists present must have had a lapse of hearing at the same time, then.

‘What he actually talked about was the need to humanise sexuality. And I think to some extent he was speaking up in protection of African women.’ Of course, to a greater extent, he was endangering the lives of millions of African women.

Blogging for the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, Gerald Warner offered a slightly more sophisticated defence.

The basis on which the Pope made this claim was the observable and recorded situation in Africa with regard to HIV/Aids infection rates. The statistics speak for themselves. Uganda was hit by an Aids epidemic in the 1980s and the government thought condoms were part of the answer, though it also promoted abstinence and fidelity. By 1992 more than 18 per cent of Ugandan adults tested HIV positive.

But the country has a 41.9 per cent Catholic population so, using this as a base, the Church promoted the “Education for Life” programme, based on abstinence and fidelity while rejecting condoms. By 2007 only 5.4 per cent of Ugandans were HIV positive. No other country has effected such a recovery, though it is threatened now as the government once again turns to the blandishments of the rubber companies.

Uganda’s success in its efforts to tackle Aids is indeed a remarkable story. According to the US Census Bureau/Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDSHIV), prevalence in Uganda peaked in 1991 at 15% of the adult population, and fell to 5% in 2001.

Picking apart what caused this decline is a tricky business. An increase in deaths from Aids during this period might have played a role , but it is likely that the main reason is a decrease in new infections. The reduced incidence has been widely credited to the ABC (abstinence, be faithful, use condoms) approach taken by Uganda’s first Aids control program, launched in 1987.

Abstinence only programs, by contrast, have repeatedly proven ineffective at reducing sexual activity and sexually-transmitted disease transmission (here’s one review but there are plenty to choose from). Warner goes on:

The correlation between a devoutly Catholic population and containment of Aids is startling and demonstrable. By 2007 Burundi, with a 62 per cent Catholic population, had only a 2 per cent Aids infection rate. Angola, 38 per cent Catholic, had a 2.1 per cent rate. In contrast, Swaziland, only 20 per cent Catholic, had a 26.1 per cent infection rate and Botswana, just 5 per cent Catholic, had a 23.9 per cent rate. Beyond Africa, in the Philippines, 81 per cent Catholic, the HIV rate is a miniscule 0.01 per cent.

Those are some nice figures you’ve chosen there. What about Lesotho? 70% of its population is Catholic, and 28% of its adult population is HIV positive. As for the Philippines, attributing its low HIV rate to the predominance of Catholicism makes about as much sense as crediting its 800 native species of orchid.

The Catholic Church is capable of admitting when it is wrong. In 1992, Pope John Paul II officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary, almost 400 years after Galileo’s observations had shown this to be the case. So we can expect the Pope to endorse the use of condoms in around 2400.

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