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WORLDVIEW: Arguing with success in fighting AIDS

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Success is hard to argue with, but that doesn’t stop some folks from trying.

Various critics attending the 15th International AIDS Conference this month in Bangkok, Thailand, renewed their attacks on the Bush administration and “religious fundamentalists” for emphasizing abstinence as the most effective way to prevent sexual transmission of AIDS.

“Naked pandering to an extremist constituency,” charged Steven Sinding, head of the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, about the administration’s preference for abstinence over condoms in AIDS prevention programs.

“Thinly disguised Christian moralism … at best paternalistic, at worst a surefire way of endangering lives by failing to place sufficient emphasis on condoms,” summarized a BBC reporter, listing other critics’ objections.

“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.”

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

The U.S. government can defend itself, although it’s worth noting that the administration has promised –- and Congress has approved — $15 billion for a variety of AIDS prevention and treatment programs in 15 at-risk countries over the next five years. Not exactly pocket change.

What Christians should defend, however, are abstinence programs and other faith-based approaches to fighting AIDS in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Why? Because they work.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who attended this year’s AIDS conference, said so -– if anybody cared to listen. 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.

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

Now it’s paying off.

“Religious organizations played a major role in prevention [of HIV/AIDS] and had a strong influence,” said Uganda’s first lady, Janet Museveni, when she visited Washington in June to receive an award for her work on behalf of AIDS prevention. “When we adopted the ‘True Love Waits’ slogan, we found that the most important thing was focusing on our spiritual foundation and values.”

Uganda’s program has made a believer out of scientist Edward Green of Harvard University’s School of Public Health. It has reduced the stigma of the disease, encouraged testing and improved the status of women, Green told Cybercast News Service. He says 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.

In Kenya, Zambia, Ethiopia, South Africa and other nations, Africans are discovering the effectiveness of the approach.

“We’ve gotten over the hurdle of resistance to abstinence and faith-based organizations,” says Southern Baptist missionary Sharon Pumpelly. She helped pioneer AIDS prevention work in Uganda and now spreads faith-based approaches across the region.

“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 reports. “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.”

No one is minimizing the enormity and tragedy of AIDS, which has killed more than 20 million people. Eight thousand people die of AIDS each day. Up to 40 million people are HIV-positive; 25 million of them are in sub-Saharan Africa, but infections are soaring in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. More new infections — 5 million — were reported last year than at any time since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic.

Pumpelly supports the use of many prevention and treatment approaches — including condoms for married couples with only one HIV-positive partner (up to 40 percent of HIV-positive people are married to someone who isn’t).

But AIDS is more than a medical or social challenge.

“I believe there can be a remnant generation that can make a difference,” Pumpelly says. “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.”
For a variety of feature stories, video resources and specific ways to respond to the AIDS crisis, visit “Faces of AIDS” at http://imb.org/aids.

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges