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Abstinence v. condoms: Debate at AIDS conference in Thailand

BANGKOK, Thailand (BP)–Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, told nearly 20,000 people at the 15th International AIDS Conference July 12 that the key to his country’s successful fight against the epidemic is abstinence, not condoms.

“I look at condoms as an improvisation, not a solution,” Museveni said in comments that counter the prevailing view at the conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

Museveni, speaking on the second day of the conference, called for “optimal relationships based on love and trust instead of institutionalized mistrust which is what the condom is all about,” according to a Reuters report.

Over the past decade, Uganda has reduced the HIV infection rate from more than 30 percent in the early 1990s to about 6 percent last year. In June, Museveni’s wife, Janet, was given the Medical Institute for Sexual Health’s “Hero Award” in Washington for the success she and her husband have had in promoting abstinence over “safe sex” in Uganda.

Janet Museveni said one of the most effective strategies used in communicating that message was through True Love Waits, a ministry launched by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention which is celebrating its 10th anniversary by displaying hundreds of thousands of abstinence commitment cards at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

Another component of Uganda’s approach to stemming the spread of AIDS is the “ABC” method, which prioritizes Abstinence, Being faithful and then Condoms. The method is a model for the AIDS policies of the Bush administration, which drew considerable criticism at the international conference.

This year, the U.S. government reduced its delegation to one-quarter the number it sent to the last meeting in Barcelona in 2002. There, heckling by activists prevented Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson from delivering his speech.

“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,” U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D.-Calif., said at the Bangkok conference, according to the Associated Press.

The Bush administration requires that one-third of the money allotted for AIDS/HIV prevention support abstinence-until-marriage programs.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan opened the conference by telling the group of policy makers, scientists, activists and celebrities that three years after world leaders pledged at the United Nations to defeat the AIDS epidemic, some progress has been made.

“And yet, we are not doing nearly well enough,” Annan said, according to the AP. “We need leaders everywhere to demonstrate that speaking up about AIDS is a point of pride, not a source of shame. There must be no more sticking heads in the sand … no more hiding behind a veil of apathy.”

An epidemiologist from the Hawaii-based think tank East West Center said he disagreed with Museveni’s comments at the conference.

“Condoms are greatly shortchanged in Africa as a prevention method,” Tim Brown said, according to the AP. “If you increase condom use by 50 percent, I guarantee you that HIV will go down by 50 percent.”

Reuters quoted a Uganda youth delegate who first had sex at age 15 but three years ago decided to be abstinent until marriage because he said condoms were not a 100-percent guarantee against infection.

“I am abstaining,” Simon Onaba said. “I am a sexual being, but I recognize HIV/AIDS is a killer. I will wait until my wedding night.”

About 25 million of the 38 million people infected with HIV worldwide live in sub-Saharan Africa. In Asia, the problem is growing because of the widespread sex trade. The infection rate there is now 7.6 million, and one in four infections in the world occurred there last year. AIDS has killed an estimated 20 million people since 1981.

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