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EDITORIAL: Silence is deadly in the politics of AIDS

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, caused quite a stir with the release of the latest figures describing the extent of the global AIDS epidemic. The report indicated UN scientists long have overestimated both the size and course of the AIDS epidemic.

According to new estimates, previous reports inflated information about new infections by as much as 70 percent, and overstated the total number of people living with HIV/AIDS by more than 20 percent.

The extent of the overestimations may have been unexpected. However, UNAIDS consistently has cautioned readers concerning the reliability of previous data, noting methodological limitations because of data collection impediments within certain global regions and populations.

Regardless, the epidemic is real and the worldwide impact is devastating.

The real news is that UNAIDS silenced information in the report, omitting any mention that abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage are the two biggest factors in reducing the incidence of HIV/AIDS worldwide.

In previous reports abstinence and fidelity at least were key discussion points. Indeed, in 2006 both were primary components of the United Nation’s plan for comprehensive HIV prevention:

“Behavioural aims for HIV prevention include: abstinence and delayed sexual debut for young people; monogamy within relationships; reduction in the number of partners; and correct and consistent condom use.”

Moreover, the 2006 report credited “delayed sexual debut in Zimbabwe” and “monogamy in Uganda” — A & B (Abstinence, Be faithful) of the ABC method — for lowering HIV incidence in those countries.

By contrast there is not a single mention of either abstinence or fidelity in the 2007 report — not one. There is not even a reference to the ABC method, although condoms are singled out for largely positive comment throughout the 50 pages or so of data and discussion.

And the United Nations’ omissions are potentially disastrous.

This is not an exaggerated claim, but a reasonable conclusion given previous statements by epidemiologists and AIDS researchers — experts in the field, not activists for abstinence.

In 2005, Harvard professor Edward C. Green spoke out to Citizen magazine about suppression of a report he wrote for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He discovered that by 1995, 95 percent of Ugandans ages 15 to 49 were practicing abstinence or monogamy while just 6 percent of the population was using condoms. Such behavior change led to a drastic drop in infection rates — from 30 percent of Ugandans to about 5 percent — in a decade.

“You cannot show that more condoms have led to less AIDS in Africa,” he said.

In the same article, Rand Stoneburner, an epidemiologist who has studied the pattern of AIDS during the past 20 years for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said millions of lives are at stake because of politics.

“Data that could save lives is being ignored — at the cost of millions of lives,” he said then. “That’s a great abuse of human rights because you would have saved 3 to 5 million lives if the ABC data was recognized and used years earlier.”

Now, UNAIDS is repeating USAID’s mistake and the consequences loom catastrophic.

Both Green and Stoneburner have argued the solution to reduce if not eliminate HIV/AIDS globally already is in hand.

“The biomedical vaccines we talk about for AIDS have been 10 years away for 20 years,” Green told Baptist Press previously. “They’re still far away, and no one is expecting such a vaccine to be more than about 35 or 40 percent effective when and if we get one.”

“But as Stoneburner has been saying, we already have a social vaccine promoting partner reductions, fidelity, monogamy, abstinence.”

The United Nations’ silence on abstinence and marital fidelity is deafening. Given the stakes, unfortunately the silence could be deadly.
Will Hall is executive editor for Baptist Press.

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  • Will Hall