Condom Distribution Not Answer to Curbing Spread of HIV in Africa, Pope Benedict Says

Distributing condoms is not the answer to curbing the spread of HIV in Africa, Pope Benedict XVI said on Tuesday while heading to Yaounde, Cameroon, as part of a seven-day pilgrimage to the continent, the AP/Washington Post reports. "You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," Benedict said, adding, "On the contrary, it increases the problem" (Simpson, AP/Washington Post, 3/18). According to Benedict, addressing HIV/AIDS will require a "two-fold" solution. He said, "The first is a humanization of sexuality, spiritual renewal which brings with it a new way of behaving ... secondly, a true friendship, especially for those who are suffering, a willingness to make personal sacrifices" (Ward, Toronto Star, 3/18). Benedict, who also said the Roman Catholic Church is at the forefront in fighting HIV/AIDS, will visit Angola and Cameroon (Simpson, AP/Washington Post, 3/18).

Although the Vatican's policy states that sexual abstinence should be used to curb the spread of HIV, this stance has led some nuns and priests working with HIV-positive people to "question the church's opposition to condoms amid the pandemic ravaging Africa," the AP/Washington Post reports (AP/Washington Post, 3/18). Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said, "No responsible health care provider would suggest condoms are a panacea." However, he added that condoms "are an absolutely vital measure that people must have if they are to protect themselves and their partners and stem the spread of the virus." According to O'Brien, opinion polls indicate that millions of Catholics worldwide support condom use. Therefore, the pope's statement was "a real tragedy because it's not just an issue for Catholics," O'Brien said (Toronto Star, 3/18).

Many HIV/AIDS advocates also have spoken out about the pope's stance. Rebecca Hodes -- director of policy, communications and research for the Treatment Action Campaign -- said that if Benedict were serious about curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS, he should focus on promoting access to condoms and disseminating information about their use. Hodes said, "Instead, his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans" (Simpson, AP/Washington Post, 3/18). Stephen Lewis, head of AIDS-Free World, said, "Every stitch of scientific evidence says condoms are the best preventive measure we have against the virus." According to Lewis, Benedict's statements were "another example of complete indifference to the vulnerability of women, who are so hugely and disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS" (Toronto Star, 3/18).

According to London's Guardian, in 2005 during a meeting with senior clergy from Africa, Benedict called HIV/AIDS a "cruel epidemic" and said it could not be eradicated with condoms. The pope said that the "traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS" (Butt, Guardian, 3/17).

According to CNN analyst and senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter John Allen, Benedict been clear that he intends to uphold the traditional Catholic ban on artificial contraception. However, according to Allen, Benedict also has asked a panel of scientists and theologians to consider whether to allow condoms for married couples in which one partner is HIV-positive, adding that it is not clear how the pope will decide the issue (CNN, 3/17).

Related Editorial
The pope "has every right to express his opposition to the use of condoms on moral grounds, in accordance with the official stance of the Roman Catholic Church," according to a New York Times editorial. However, the editorial continues that Benedict "deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings about the value of condoms in slowing the spread" of HIV/AIDS. According to the Times, Benedict's statement that condom distribution will not eradicate HIV/AIDS is "clearly right" because condoms "alone won't stop the spread of HIV." Instead, HIV/AIDS prevention programs should incorporate initiatives to reduce the number of sexual partners, promote safer-sex practices and advance other interventions to "bring the disease to heel," according to the editorial. However, Benedict's statement that condom use could worsen Africa's HIV/AIDS burden is "grievously wrong," the editorial continues. It states, "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."

The editorial states, "From an individual's point of view, condoms work very well" in preventing HIV transmission. In addition, from "a national perspective, condom promotion has been effective in slowing epidemics in several countries among high-risk groups, such as sex workers and their customers, but less effective in slowing epidemics that have spread into the general population, as in sub-Saharan Africa," the editorial says. It continues that this occurs "probably because far too few people use condoms consistently and correctly." According to the editorial, public health officials have cautioned that condom use "cannot provide absolute protection" because condoms sometimes "break, slip or are put on incorrectly." It continues that the "best way" to avoid HIV transmission "is to abstain from sexual intercourse or have a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected person." However, health officials regardless "consider condoms a valuable component of any well-rounded program to prevent the spread" of HIV/AIDS, the editorial says. It concludes, "It seems irresponsible to blame condoms for making the epidemic worse" (New York Times, 3/17).

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