Experts Debate Over Abstinence, Condom Controversy at AIDS Conference

( [email protected] ) Jul 20, 2004 09:37 PM EDT

At the 15th International AIDS Conference held July 11-16 in Bangkok, Thailand, critics renewed their attacks on the Bush administration and “religious fundamentalists” for emphasizing abstinence as the most effective way for preventing sexual transmission of AIDS, according to the Baptist Press.

“We know condoms save lives,” declared Peter Piot, executive director of UNAIDS, the UN agency dealing with AIDS issues. “We are not in the business of morality.”

"In an age where 5 million people are newly infected each year and women and girls too often do not have the choice to abstain, an abstinence-until-marriage program is not only irresponsible, it's really inhumane," said US Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat.

A representative of a Christian relief group also joined in agreement, claiming that abstinence programs “make people feel guilty and leave them unprepared when they do have sex.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, however, insisted that condoms are not the ultimate solution to fighting the AIDS scourge. He said abstinence and loving relationships in marriage are even more crucial.

Uganda has waged one of the world's most successful battles against the spread of HIV. Once the hardest-hit nation in Africa, Uganda has lowered its HIV infection rate from 30 percent of the population to 5 percent over the last decade, primarily through aggressive AIDS education coupled with faith-based abstinence programs.

"I look at condoms as an improvisation, not a solution," Museveni told delegates on the second day of the conference.

Using the “ABC” method: Abstinence, Being faithful –- and Condoms when used appropriately, Uganda has seen drastic improvements. The government also invited Southern Baptist missionaries, Ugandan Baptists and others to educate Ugandan young people in the principles of “True Love Waits,” the Christian abstinence program launched 10 years ago by Southern Baptists in the United States.

“No country has so dramatically reversed its epidemic as Uganda,” says a fact sheet from UNAIDS.

“In our prevention campaigns we emphasized abstinence and being faithful rather than condom use,” Museveni said at the Bangkok conference. “Ultimately we cannot become a condomized nation.”

Uganda's first lady, Janet Museveni, who initiated the ABC strategy, added, "Giving young people condoms is tantamount to giving them a licence to be promiscuous; it leads to certain death."

Museveni, who had visited Washington in June to receive an award for her work on behalf of AIDS prevention, expressed her support for faith-based programs stating, “Religious organizations played a major role in prevention [of HIV/AIDS] and had a strong influence. When we adopted the ‘True Love Waits’ slogan, we found that the most important thing was focusing on our spiritual foundation and values.”

Edward Green of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, who also supported Uganda's program, said that it has reduced the stigma of the disease, encouraged testing and improved the status of women. He said the campaign focuses on “what individuals can do to change behavior, and thereby avoid or reduce the risk of infection.”

Uganda’s success has given faith-based prevention programs an open door across southern Africa, Ground Zero of the AIDS war, BP reported. In Kenya, Zambia, Ethiopia, South Africa and other nations, Africans are discovering the effectiveness of the approach.

Southern Baptist missionary, Sharon Pumpelly, who helped pioneer AIDS prevention work in Uganda and is now spreading the faith-based approaches told Baptist Press, “We’ve gotten over the hurdle of resistance to abstinence and faith-based organizations.

“I wasn’t in Kenya long at all until I was on an [AIDS] committee out of the president’s office that he started for faith-based organizations,” Pumpelly reported. “People are going out and doing True Love Waits just about everywhere. The Baptist AIDS Response Agency in Kenya is training churches to have voluntary counseling and testing services. And then there’s a whole variety of people who are working with AIDS orphans or widows, providing home-based care of people with AIDS and working in AIDS awareness. There’s a lot of stuff that’s going on.”

Continuing, Pumpelly added, “I believe there can be a remnant generation that can make a difference.... Millions still will die, but we can equip believers to reach out into those lives and the lives of the generation that’s coming up. We want to minister to those who are dying, but we also want to minister to the families and the friends who are affected and give them hope for tomorrow. To me, that’s the seed of a church-planting movement: loving and caring for people who are HIV-positive and teaching how to keep the HIV-negative person negative.

“In all that, we can introduce Jesus.”

A report from UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, showed almost five million people were infected with HIV in 2003, the highest number in a single year.

Following are some key facts and figures about the disease:

-- The number of people living with HIV/AIDS has increased from 35 million in 2001 to 38 million in 2003. Almost three million people died from the illness in 2003.

-- Sub-Saharan Africa has just over 10 percent of the world's population but is home to almost two-thirds of all people living with HIV, or about 25 million people. An estimated 3 million became infected during the past year.

-- AIDS killed approximately 2.2 million people in Africa in 2003, 75 percent of deaths globally. Seven countries on the continent have prevalence rates above 17 percent. Botswana and Swaziland, with more than 35 percent, have the highest rates.

-- Women have a greater risk of becoming infected than men. In sub-Saharan Africa there are on average 13 infected women for every 10 infected men.

-- Nearly half of new infections worldwide are in young people between the ages of 15-24.

-- In Eastern Europe and Central Asia the virus is spreading, fueled by injecting drugs. About 1.3 million people in the region are living with HIV. Estonia, Latvia, the Russian Federation and Ukraine are the worst affected.

-- Asia has some of the fastest growing AIDS epidemics in the world. China, Indonesia and Vietnam have had among the sharpest infection increases in Asia where 7.4 million people are living with HIV/AIDS. There were 1.1 million new cases last year.

-- Infection rates are also rising in high-income countries and Latin America and the Caribbean.

[Sources: Baptist Press, UNAIDS]