Serious Solutions

Combating the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa.
by Brother Thomas Murphy, LC | Source:

I’ve heard it said that “Intelligent people are people who agree with you.” Perhaps this isn’t the most usual definition, but I’ve decided it beats the traditional “someone who knows a lot of stuff.” There’s no doubt that it’s much more humorous and witty, and equating intelligence with the mental accumulation of ‘stuff’ seems to betray a rather unimaginative and perhaps even – dare I say it – unintelligent vocabulary.

You won’t find our winning definition in a dictionary of course. But you will find it popping up all over the place in everyday life. In more ways than we may be prepared to admit, our criteria for judging intelligence seems to be little less than relegating those on the other side of the fence to ‘just plain stupid.’

A case in point is the onslaught of criticism Pope Benedict XVI has received for his comments on condoms on the way to Cameroon. Why such a fast and verbally violent reaction? For anyone who took the time to read what the Pope actually said, it is evident that he wasn’t being dogmatic and he wasn’t imposing Church doctrine on the world.

Yes, what he said coincides with Church teaching. Could anything less be expected? Yet the pope’s criticism of condoms as a failure to deal with the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa is not simply based on Catholic teaching. It’s held by many who live and fight against this problem every day in Africa, and by leading scientific and medical authorities who have been dealing with this issue for years.

Dr. Edward Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at Harvard University, for example, says that condoms aren’t working to stop the AIDS epidemic in Africa “The mainstream HIV/AIDS community has continued to champion condom use as critical in all types of HIV epidemics, despite the evidence that condoms don’t work in general-population epidemics like those in Africa” he said.

In fact, UNAIDS, an organ within the United Nations which commissioned a study in 2004 to see how effective condom promotion had been in fighting AIDS found that the method hadn’t been effective at all! “On the contrary,” said Norman Hearst, lead researcher, “increased condom sales actually went hand-in-hand with higher HIV rates.”

And five years ago 150 leading AIDS researchers and HIV experts in the world published a statement in Lancet, the same English magazine that criticized the Pope for his comments, saying that the answer to Africa’s population-wide epidemics was not greater condom availability but fidelity between spouses and abstinence for youth.

In countries like Uganda where fidelity in marriage and abstinence have been emphasized, the HIV rates have dropped incredibly. In 1991, they were at 15%; but by 2001, they had dropped to 5%. Senegal is a country with a relatively low HIV rate, and this is credited in large part to the fact that fidelity in marriage and abstinence before marriage are values the people and culture of Senegal hold in high esteem.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa is a very serious problem, and name-calling is not going to lead to any real solution. If research is showing that the condom promotion method is not working, then it’s time to re-evaluate the approaches taken in the past, and to be ready to change strategies. It’s not about imposing doctrines and ideologies. It’s about coming to the help of millions of people who are suffering. The Pope’s words on the way to Cameroon are worth reflecting on: “The solution can only be found in a double commitment: first, a humanization of sexuality, that is, a spiritual and human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another; and second, a true friendship, also and above all for those who suffer, the willingness -- even with sacrifice and self-denial -- to be with the suffering. And these are the factors that help and that lead to visible progress.”

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