Condoms are not the answer? Only if you’re asking the wrong question.


On the long running game show Jeopardy, contestants are given the category and the answer, and they have to provide the correct question. So, for example, if the category were HIV/AIDS, and the answer was “condoms,” the correct question would be “What is the safest, most cost effective way to prevent the spread of the deadly disease?”

Evidently the Pope does not know how to play Jeopardy. MSNBC, reporting on the Pope’s arrival in Cameroon at the start of a trip to Africa:

Condoms are not the answer to Africa’s fight against HIV, Pope Benedict XVI said Tuesday as he began a weeklong trip to the continent. It was the pope’s first explicit statement on an issue that has divided even clergy working with AIDS patients…

“You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane heading to Yaounde. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

That is simply flat out false. Extensive research has shown that condoms are the most effective, the safest, and the least expensive way to prevent transmission of the deadly virus. According to Effectiveness of HIV Prevention Strategies in Resource-Poor Countries, published in the journal AIDS:

Studies overwhelmingly demonstrate that condoms are highly effective in preventing HIV transmission. A workshop co-sponsored by four government agencies responsible for condom research, condom regulation, and HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted disease prevention programs (US Agency for International Development, Food and Drug Administration, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA) was held in June 2000 to evaluate the published evidence establishing the effectiveness of latex male condoms in preventing HIV/AIDS and other STDs. The workshop panel concluded that consistent users of the male condom significantly reduced the risk of HIV infection in men and women. In fact, condoms appear on average to be at least 90% effective in preventing HIV when used consistently and correctly…

A 90% effectiveness rate is very effective indeed. In contrast, sexual abstinence, the Pope’s preferred method for preventing transmission of HIV has been found to be totally ineffective. A 2007 paper in the British Medical Journal reviewed the effectiveness of abstinence programs in several countries:

…Compared with various controls, no programme affected incidence of unprotected vaginal sex, number of partners, condom use, or sexual initiation. One trial observed adverse effects at short term follow-up (sexually transmitted infections, frequency of sex) and long term follow-up (sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy) compared with usual care, but findings were offset by trials with non-significant results…

Moreover, the use of condoms is safe, easy to teach, and cost effective. In contrast, not only is abstinence ineffective, it is impractical because many HIV positive people are married to HIV negative partners. Abstinence would mean that sex was impossible even within marriage.

The Pope’s response “abstinence” is clearly the answer to an entirely different question: “What method of HIV prevention (which doesn’t even work) is consonant with Catholic doctrine?” The Pope is obviously not interested in the actual effectiveness of the method, and he does appear to be disturbed that millions are dying for lack of effective prevention strategies. That has not escaped the professionals who are striving to decrease the horrific impact of AIDS in Africa:

Rebecca Hodes with the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa said if the pope was serious about preventing new HIV infections, he would focus on promoting wide access to condoms and spreading information on how best to use them…

“Instead, his opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans,” said Hodes, head of policy, communication and research for the organization…

The Pope is entitled to his own agenda, but he is not entitled to be intellectually dishonest. Condoms are clearly the answer to Africa’s fight against HIV, if the concern is preventing transmission and death. When is abstinence the answer? Only if the question is how to die Catholic in the midst of an AIDS epidemic.


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