Pope Benedict XVI visiting Cameroon

A senior Harvard research scientist confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI, who endured heavy criticism for declaring that condom distribution programs worsen the AIDS epidemic in Africa, was actually correct.

Dr. Edward C. Green, director of the AIDS Prevention Research Project at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, told National Review Online last week that despite AIDS activists and media outlets pounding the pope for downplaying the effectiveness of condoms, the science actually supports the Catholic leader’s claim.

“The pope is correct,” Green told NRO, “or put it a better way, the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments.”

“There is,” Green added, “a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the U.S.-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys,’ between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.”

Aboard a plane traveling to Yaounde, Cameroon, last week, a French reporter told Benedict that the Catholic approach to combating AIDS – encouraging monogamy within marriage and abstinence before – was often considered unrealistic and ineffective.

According to transcripts released by the Vatican, Benedict responded, “This problem of AIDS cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension, if Africans do not help [by responsible behavior], the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it.”

Benedict immediately came under fire in the international press for proclaiming just what Green says the studies support: Encouraging fidelity in sexual relations decreases the spread of AIDS, and condom distribution programs increase it.

Rebecca Hodes, head of policy, communications and research for the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, blasted the pope for not advocating wide access to condoms as a means of combating AIDS.

“His opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans,” Hodes told the Associated Press.

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“We call on the Pope to revisit the teachings on condoms with a view to lifting the ban at the earliest possible moment,” said Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. “In his review, we want him to include experts who are unequivocal that condoms do in fact help prevent the spread of HIV.”

Syndicated columnist Roland Martin writes on CNN.com that the pope’s position demonstrated “ignorance of reality.”

“For the church,” Martin writes, “to continue to ignore the definitive research that condoms play a huge role in decreasing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases is mind-boggling.”

Even the Vatican, according to a report in the London Times, backtracked slightly on the pope’s remarks, adding a word to Benedict’s remarks, stating he said distribution of condoms merely “risked” increasing the spread of AIDS.

According to Green, however, the pope’s critics have bought into a common myth about condoms and AIDS.

“We have found no consistent associations between condom use and lower HIV-infection rates,” said Green, “which, 25 years into the pandemic, we should be seeing if this intervention was working.”

Instead, Green noted, the pope’s encouragement of Africans toward monogamous sexual relationships has proven to be a much more effective strategy:

“The best and latest empirical evidence indeed shows that reduction in multiple and concurrent sexual partners is the most important single behavior change associated with reduction in HIV-infection rates,” Green said.

In Uganda, according to a report in Science magazine, teaching about AIDS and promoting monogamy has led to a dramatic turnaround in the country’s AIDS epidemic.

“Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is preventable if populations are mobilized to avoid risk,” states the report’s summary. “Despite limited resources, Uganda has shown a 70 percent decline in HIV prevalence since the early 1990s, linked to a 60 percent reduction in casual sex. The response in Uganda appears to be distinctively associated with communication about [AIDS] through social networks. Despite substantial condom use and promotion of biomedical approaches, other African countries have shown neither similar behavioral responses nor HIV prevalence declines of the same scale. The Ugandan success is equivalent to a vaccine of 80 percent effectiveness.”

Green further told NRO, “More and more AIDS experts are coming to accept the above. The two countries with the worst HIV epidemics, Swaziland and Botswana, have both launched campaigns to discourage multiple and concurrent partners, and to encourage fidelity.”


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