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USAID accused of human rights abuse for burying Harvard prof’s abstinence research

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The U.S. Agency for International Development has dismissed a report by a Harvard professor which says abstinence is the method that has worked best in dramatically reducing the AIDS epidemic in Uganda, according to Focus on the Family’s Citizen magazine. USAID instead tapped a nationally known condom advocate to conduct another study that shed a more favorable light on the role of condoms in Uganda’s success.

For the first of a two-part series on the American government’s discrimination against abstinence and faith-based programs in distributing AIDS prevention funds overseas, Citizen interviewed Edward C. Green, an anthropologist at Harvard University and the lead author of a study financed by USAID that found abstinence to be more effective than condoms in reducing the spread of AIDS in Uganda.

At issue is a strategy pushed by President Bush called “ABC” — an acronym for Abstinence, Being faithful in marriage and Condoms only for high-risk populations. Bush allotted $15 billion in taxpayer funds to promote the strategy as a way of preventing AIDS in Third World countries.

Green’s study found that faithfulness and abstinence campaigns, in that order, played the most significant role in the dramatic reduction of AIDS in Uganda, Citizen said in its March issue. Green 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.

“It’s a very indicting statement about the effectiveness of condoms,” Green told Citizen. “You cannot show that more condoms have led to less AIDS in Africa.”

But when Green submitted his study to USAID in early 2003, the government agency refused to publish his findings and instead hired Douglas Kirby, a senior researcher for one of the nation’s largest condom-promoting sex education groups, to conduct another study on AIDS prevention in Uganda, Citizen said. Kirby turned in his report in late 2004, saying condoms played a greater role in Uganda’s AIDS decline than faithfulness or abstinence.

“Why does it matter whether an ABC supporter or a condom advocate writes USAID’s report?” Citizen asked. “Because USAID studies affect which type of AIDS prevention efforts receive American funding.”

In the past, condom promoters have received the largest portion of American taxpayer dollars in curbing AIDS overseas while abstinence promoters have received little funding. If USAID ignores studies that indicate more money should be spent on abstinence campaigns, the trend likely will remain the same. Citizen, along with Green, contends that moral messages could save millions of lives in the battle against AIDS if only USAID would comply.

And lest anyone write off Green as previously biased toward abstinence before he conducted the study, he pointed out to Citizen that he is a second-generation population control liberal. He doesn’t attend church and considers himself a secularist, but he strives to be an objective researcher who will support whatever conclusion his studies produce.

“I look at the data and I see that what might be called a more liberal response to AIDS — more and more millions or billions of condoms — has simply not worked, especially in parts of the world with the highest infection rate, Africa and the Caribbean,” Green told Citizen. “I went where the evidence led me and the evidence led me to ABC, with strong emphasis on A and B for the general population.”

Citizen laid out further examples of USAID’s tendency to show favor to obvious condom advocates, including the hiring of one of the nation’s leading condom distributors to execute AIDS study contracts.

Fear of a right-wing political agenda creeping into AIDS prevention keeps USAID and other organizations from fairly assessing the importance of abstinence, one expert told Citizen.

“A lot of people in the field think this whole ABC thing is some sort of smokescreen for the religious right that’s just trying to stop them from handing out condoms,” said Norman Hearst, a medical doctor and University of California professor who studied AIDS in San Francisco.

But Rand Stoneburner, an epidemiologist who has studied the pattern of AIDS during the past 20 years for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Citizen that millions of lives are at stake while USAID squabbles over whether a religious agenda is being pushed.

“Data that could save lives is being ignored — at the cost of millions of lives,” he said. “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.”

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  • Erin Curry