June 10, 2011


AIDS and condom distribution

Pope Benedict XVI has been ridiculed, even by some Catholics, for his statement, “We cannot solve the problem of AIDS by distributing condoms.”

That, and the distribution of prescription drugs, is precisely how the world is trying to prevent the disease.

It has now been 30 years since AIDS first came to our attention. Today, it is estimated that 33.3 million people in the world are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Ninety percent of them live in developing countries.

The Catholic Church is greatly concerned about AIDS, so much so that the Holy See sponsored a special AIDS conference on May 28-29 at the Vatican. The conference was a forum meant to clarify pastoral practices when it comes to the Church’s efforts against AIDS.

Although no guidelines were announced during the conference, it is likely that specific instructions will be issued sometime in the future after the discussions at the forum are analyzed. Some of those guidelines might pertain to the use of condoms by married couples to prevent the spread of infection.

Regardless of arguments over the morality of an individual’s use of a condom, there is no doubt about the Vatican’s certainty that the promotion of condoms has been a failure in the battle against AIDS.

Edward C. Green, former director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University, told the conference that there is a growing consensus that AIDS can be controlled only by changing patterns of sexual behavior. He emphasized that this conclusion has nothing to do with morals. It is based only on practical effectiveness, he said.

He used Uganda as an example. When that country promoted a program based on sexual fidelity and abstinence, he said, the HIV infection rate declined from about 14 percent in 1991 to about 4 percent in 2003.

Unfortunately, during the past eight years, the focus on sexual responsibility in Uganda has diminished, and presciption drugs and condoms are now viewed as the solution. The result is that the HIV rate has begun to rise again because relying on prescription drugs and condoms led people to resume high-risk sexual behavior.

The AIDS problem, of course, is twofold. One is the prevention of the disease, and the other is curing people who have contracted HIV. Therefore, participants at the Vatican conference stressed that the Church supports greater access to medical care for AIDS patients in developing countries.

Antiretroviral drugs have proven to be effective for controlling HIV, but up to this time they have been too expensive for most Africans. It is good news that the prices for those prescription drugs have been declining. It is interesting that today 80 percent of the AIDS drugs used in developing countries are manufactured by 10 companies in India rather than in the United States.

It is not, though, that the United States hasn’t been doing its part. It is by far the largest contributor in the fight against the disease.

President George W. Bush created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in 2003, and President Barack Obama expanded the program.

Since 2009, contributions to that program and to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have totaled more than $6 billion a year. These programs have provided antiretroviral therapy to about 4.7 million people, about 85 percent of those who are receiving the therapy.

New prescription drugs are promising for both control and prevention of HIV.

At the Vatican conference, Archbishop Zygmunt Zimoski, head of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, noted that the success of early antiretroviral treatment in preventing AIDS transmission has brought hope to married couples where one spouse is infected with HIV.

He said the early therapy has also been shown to greatly reduce the risk of transmission of HIV from mother to child during pregnancy. That means

HIV-positive couples, in some circumstances, could risk having sexual relations in order to have a child, he said.

I once visited a school in South Africa where most of the children’s parents had died of AIDS. Teenagers were acting as parents for their siblings. The girls there were determined not to contract the disease, and they understood that the ways to avoid it are sexual abstinence and conjugal fidelity.

The distribution of condoms won’t solve the problem.

—John F. Fink

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