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Dispute Over Condom Distrubution May Hinder US Anti-AIDS Funding - 2003-06-07

Over 40 million people around the world are infected with the virus that causes AIDS. Three-quarters of them live in Africa. 18,000 more people become HIV-positive every day, so prevention remains an urgent goal. On May 27, U.S. President George W. Bush signed a new law designed to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean with $15 billion, allocated through the year 2008. The bill earmarks one-third of those funds for lowering HIV infection rates. In approving the legislation, Mr. Bush spoke about the "moral duty to act" against the spread of AIDS. But some experts worry that disputes over distributing condoms may limit the funding of an important AIDS prevention tool.

Even when he was the president of Zambia, from 1964 until 1991, Kenneth Kaunda loved to sing. These days, he sings to rally his people against a deadly disease.

As a father, Kenneth Kaunda knows the heartbreak of HIV infection, because AIDS-related illness took the life of his 30-year-old son two decades ago. Back then, many people in Africa considered it socially unacceptable to talk openly about AIDS, even though millions of Africans were already HIV-infected. To raise awareness, President Kaunda took a bold step. "When my son died of AIDS, December 23, 1986, we decided to make it public, my wife and I, so that all people would know that our son had died of AIDS. We had made it public to break this wall of silence, for this disease," he says.

Ever since, Kenneth Kaunda has been leading efforts to conquer AIDS. For prevention, he recommends the "ABC approach," which stands for "Abstinence before marriage, Be Faithful to one partner in a sexual relationship, and use condoms if there's any question about the safety of sex. "If people cannot abstain from sex, then they must not only think of, but actually go all out, to try and equip themselves by using condoms. I think today there are female condoms, male condoms," he says. "Either way, I recommend that very strongly."

Those ABC's are endorsed by many experts in the field, including Mike Tidwell, a spokesperson for DKT International. The non-profit organization promotes AIDS awareness and prevention through education about abstinence, fidelity and condom use. "We believe we have solid evidence that having condoms as part of a mix of prevention efforts is why we're seeing a drop in infection rates in some of Africa's largest and hardest hit HIV[-infected] cities," he says.

On May 27, President Bush signed a bill that will provide $15 billion over the next five years to fight AIDS, primarily in Africa. It sets aside nearly $5 billion for HIV-prevention efforts organized by groups such as DKT International. But while most Americans want to help fight AIDS in Africa, some are uncomfortable with the "C" part of the ABC approach.

"Individuals are welcome to use the method of their choice, but that doesn't mean that the U.S. taxpayer has to fund all of that," says Lori Waters, the Executive Director of the Eagle Forum, a conservative grassroots organization that wants special preference for AIDS prevention programs that emphasize the 'A' - "Abstinence Before Marriage."

Through the efforts of groups such as the Eagle Forum, roughly $1.5 billion of the AIDS funding package will go to programs that emphasize abstinence before marriage, even if they don't distribute condoms. "This bill also includes language that protects faith-based groups, such as the Catholic Church, who may not want to participate in contraception distribution but certainly may participate in abstinence efforts," she says.

Mrs. Waters points out that most of the AIDS prevention funds will be offered to groups that promote some degree of condom use. But Mike Tidwell of DKT International says that any money given to abstinence-only programs is wasted. "I'm not aware of any studies that show that in high HIV infection countries that any campaigns that emphasize abstinence only have in fact led to lowered HIV infection rates," he says.

But some political observers say that setting aside funds for abstinence-based programs builds a bridge between Americans who worry that giving out condoms encourages sexual activity and those who want to fight AIDS in every way possible. This compromise may be important in the days ahead, for although President Bush has approved the global AIDS package, Congress has not yet allocated any money to pay for it.

"We will fight and conquer AIDS"

Former Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda says Africa desperately needs help combating AIDS. He's hopeful that the U.S. Congress will fully fund the package, and ensure that most of the money for prevention will go to programs that encourage condom use.

"We will fight and conquer AIDS. In the name of great Africa, we will fight and conquer AIDS."