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Pope says condoms aggravate Aids epidemic in Africa

Article published on the 2009-03-18 Latest update 2009-03-18 16:08 TU

Pope Benedict XVI(Photo: Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI
(Photo: Reuters)

Pope Benedict XVI arrived Tuesday in Cameroon on his first trip to Africa and sparked controversy by denouncing condom usage.

The Pope, who is on a week-long visit of Africa, said that condoms were making the Aids epidemic worse, rather than containing it.

"[Aids] is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that
cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even
aggravates the problems," the Pope told reporters on the flight from Rome.

The statement has already sparked protest from health workers. The Catholic Church's official position on birth control has long put it at odds with Aids prevention and health agencies.

More than five per cent of adults among Cameroon's estimated 18.9 million people suffer from the disease, according to the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids).

The vast majority of HIV is caused by unprotected sex in Africa and condoms are fundamental in combatting the spread of HIV, says Rebbeca Holders, a spokesperson for the NGO Treatment Action Campaign based in South Africa.

Interview: Rebbeca Holders, spokesperson for the NGO Treatment Action Campaign

18/03/2009 by Anustup Roy

"Condoms are an evidence based means of preventing HIV," she says. "If the pope was really sincere about saving African lives he would have a lot more to say about the importance of antiretrovirals."

But the 81-year-old pontiff did not mention antiretroviral therapy, although many who work in the field believe it is the most effective weapon in fighting the spread of HIV and Aids.

Instead the Pope spoke of "spiritual and human awakening" that could create a sense of responsibility. The Vatican has since tried to downplay his comments by saying they are merely traditional Catholic Church doctrine.

Condoms are ineffective in stopping the spread of HIV, a local church leader Francis Nk-wyne told RFI.

"Condoms have become a market and people pretend they are helping to stop HIV by making condoms available everywhere."

Nk-wyne agrees with the pope that the key rests in abstinence and teaching responsibility.

But Holders says religion does not have to be at odds with safe sex.

"The Pope has shown that he is very ignorant of the situation in Africa and also the mechanisms of HIV itself," she says.

Holders claims there are many church officials and religious leaders who promote condom use in Africa based on experience from working with communities first hand. People will not stop having sex, she says, and preaching abstinence could have a harmful impact because it could lead to people having unprotected sex.

The debate has left many critics wondering if the Catholic Church's doctrine is outdated.

In response to the Pope's comments, French Housing Minister Christine Boutin - a staunch Catholic - said, "It's no fun putting on a condom when you make love."

In 2005, the Pope told South African bishops visiting the Vatican, "The traditional teaching of the Church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids."