Pope Benedict, who's beginning a tour of Africa, has released a statement saying that condoms will not solve the HIV/AIDS problem. In fact, he says condoms would only make matters worse. Pope Benedict, like his predecessor Pope John Paul II, promotes abstinence.
The pontiff's comments have brought strong and sometimes angry reaction from some health agencies and advocacy groups. One of the organizations that's critical of the pope's comments is the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), one of South Africa's leading HIV/AIDS advocacy groups. Rebecca Hodesis the TAC's director of policy communication and research. From Cape Town, she spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about Pope Benedict's position on condom use.
"Our reaction is one of anger and sadness because we know working in Africa for over ten years in treating and preventing HIV from the Treatment and Action Campaign's perspective that condoms are one of the very few evidence-based means of preventing HIV," she says.
She says relying on abstinence to stop the spread of HIV is unrealistic. "Abstinence-only prevention campaigns have very little evidence to support their efficacy…. So what the pope says actually flies in the face of empirical, scientific evidence with regards to the efficacy of condoms in preventing HIV," says Hodes.
She also rejects arguments that condoms only encourage people to have more sex, saying, "There's very little evidence of that. It's just hearsay."
The strong reaction from TAC reflects concern about how the pope's comments might affect prevention campaigns in South Africa and elsewhere.
Hodes says the "pope is a very influential figure. He has about a billion followers worldwide. It's important that our reaction is strong because we're an independent organization. We can speak out," she says. Hodes says other organizations having religious affiliations may not be able to voice their concerns as readily. But TAC itself has been the target of criticism for rejecting the pope's statement on condom use.
"We've received an onslaught of hate mail this morning from people who obviously have very strong religious convictions. But we have very strong scientific convictions and we know that condoms work in preventing HIV," she says. Hodes says there are more than 1,000 new HIV infections in South Africa every day. "This is despite massive amounts of money being spent on education campaigns which promote abstinence…. They first promote abstinence, then they promote being faithful and then they promote condom use. It's called the ABC campaign: abstain, be faithful, condomize," she says.
Hodes says because a lot of sex is coerced in Africa, abstinence is not always possible. She gives an example of the demand for condoms in just one area of South Africa.
"In a very poor area here in Cape Town, we have a person called the Condom King. He hands out upwards of 500,000 condoms a month and he also gives HIV awareness education. And he gives information how best to use the condoms. And the evidence that we have found there, based on a study with Doctors Without Borders, is that because of this concerted education campaign around condoms, together with the condom access, there's actually been a decrease in sexually transmitted infections in Khayelitsha. That is quite remarkable in an area which is very poor, where people have a lot of sexually transmitted infections and have a lot of transactional sex," she says.
Khayelitsha is a large township on the outskirts of Cape Town.
She adds, "People want condoms. They want to protect themselves. They want to protect others and they want appropriate, clear information about the best means for using condoms."
Pope Benedict is quoted as saying the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a "tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems."