Advocates, Vatican Respond to Pope Statement That Condom Distribution Will Not Curb HIV/AIDS in Africa

Pope Benedict XVI's statement on Tuesday that condom distribution will not curb the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa has "sparked an international outcry" among HIV/AIDS advocates and prompted a response from the Vatican, AFP/ reports (AFP/, 3/18). While heading to Yaounde, Cameroon, as part of a seven-day pilgrimage to Africa, the pope said, "You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," adding, "On the contrary, it increases the problem" (Simpson, AP/Washington Times, 3/18). He added that addressing the disease will require a "spiritual and human awakening" and "friendship for those who suffer" (AFP/, 3/18).

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesperson for the pope, called the criticism of Benedict's remarks the "echoes caused by some words by the pope on the AIDS problem." He added that the Roman Catholic Church's "essential principles" regarding HIV/AIDS prevention are "education about people's responsibility in the use of sexuality" and the "essential role of marriage and family." At the end of the second day of Benedict's African tour, Lombardi issued a written statement indicating that the church emphasizes treatment for "the widest number of sick" and "human and spiritual assistance" to people living with HIV/AIDS (AP/Washington Times, 3/18). Lombardi also said that Benedict was stating a long-standing Vatican position against artificial contraception, including condoms, adding that the pope aimed to emphasize that relying on condoms takes away from a needed focus on sexual conduct education (Charlton, AP/Seattle Times, 3/18). According to London's Guardian, the Vatican posted a version of the pope's comments on the Holy See's Web site that said, "The scourge cannot be resolved with the distribution of prophylactics; on the contrary, this risk is of increasing the problem" (Butt/Hooper, Guardian, 3/19).

Michel Kazatchkine -- head of the Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria -- called for the pope to retract his "unacceptable" statement, which he called "a denial of the epidemic." According to Kazatchkine, for the pope "to make these remarks on a continent that unfortunately is a continent where 70% of people who have AIDS die, it's absolutely unbelievable" (AFP/, 3/18). He said, "I think Africa, which is hit so hard (by AIDS), did not need this message," adding, "Negationist statements are terribly harmful" (AP/Seattle Times, 3/18). In addition, UNAIDS called condoms an "essential part of combination prevention," adding, "With more than 7,400 new infections each day, the world cannot stop the AIDS epidemic without stopping new HIV" transmissions (AFP/, 3/18). Although UNAIDS did not mention the pope in its comments, the agency released its statement the day after Benedict's remarks (AP/Seattle Times, 3/18).

According to the Guardian, several foreign governments also criticized the Vatican, which is a "rare" occurrence that "reflects the strength of feeling against the pope's comments." Eric Chevallier, spokesperson for the French foreign ministry, said in an online briefing, "France voices extremely sharp concern over the consequences of Benedict XVI's comments." He added, "While it is not up to us to pass judgment on church doctrine, we consider that such comments are a threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life." According to Chevallier, condom distribution is "a fundamental element of actions" to prevent HIV transmission. Laurette Onkelinx, health minister of Belgium, said the pope's remarks reflect "a dangerous doctrinaire vision." Onkelinx added that Benedict's statements on condoms "could demolish years of prevention and education and endanger many human lives." In addition, German Health Minister Ulla Schmidt and Minister of Development Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul issued a joint statement criticizing the pope's remarks. "Condoms save lives," they said, adding, "Modern assistance to the developing world today must make access to family planning available to the poorest of the poor, especially the use of condoms. Anything else would be irresponsible" (Guardian, 3/19).

In addition to international agencies and foreign governments, many HIV/AIDS advocates joined the recent criticism against the pope's comments. Alain Fogue, spokesperson for Cameroon's treatment campaign MOCPAT, said, "To claim that condoms 'aggravate' the problem of AIDS goes totally against all the efforts made by the Cameroonian government." Advocates in Angola, where Benedict will arrive Friday, added that the pope's statements should relate to church doctrine and not public health. "Condoms are a method of preventing AIDS, not just in Africa but in all the world," Delma Monteiro, head of an HIV program, said. She added that officials "have to use all forms of prevention that we can against this disease." Mohga Kamal-Yanni, an HIV/AIDS specialist for Oxfam International, said "access to condoms is absolutely essential to combat HIV." Kamal-Yanni added that in order to prevent new HIV cases, particularly among young people, "we need to expand the use of condoms, not decrease it." Judith Melby, an Africa specialist at the United Kingdom's Christian Aid, added that the pope's statements "are not very helpful." She added that his position is "sending a confusing message to Africa, in those countries where the Catholic church is very important" (AFP/, 3/18).

Related Editorial
Although "[i]n a perfect world, people would abstain from having sex until they were married or would be monogamous in committed relationships, ... the world isn't perfect," a Washington Post editorial states, adding that "neither is Pope Benedict's pronouncement on the effectiveness of condoms in the battle against HIV/AIDS. The evidence says so." The editorial asks, "Are condoms foolproof protection against infection by HIV, which causes AIDS? No." However, even though condoms sometimes break or are used incorrectly, "doctors on the front lines of the fight against the AIDS epidemic established long ago that the use of condoms greatly diminishes the transmission of HIV," according to the editorial. It says that it is "troubling" that Benedict "chose to question the value of condoms in fighting the nearly 28-year-old scourge while heading to the continent whose people are most affected by it." Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 67% of people living with HIV in the world and 75% of all AIDS deaths, according to UNAIDS, the editorial states. It adds that "[h]eterosexual intercourse is the 'driving force' of the epidemic."

The editorial continues that the pope's remarks were "especially discordant to us coming a day after" a report about HIV/AIDS prevalence in Washington, D.C. The editorial notes that the "startling" report showed that 3% of D.C. residents are living with HIV/AIDS and that UNAIDS and CDC define a "severe" epidemic in a specific area as infection in at least 1% of the population. According to the editorial, "To halt the march of HIV/AIDS, those who have the infection must be treated. Those who do not have it need all the information and tools possible to remain HIV-negative." It concludes, "The pope's denunciation of condoms is of no help" (Washington Post, 3/19).

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