Thirty years after AIDS discovery, appreciation growing for Catholic approach

1 28 2010 Tomasi The Vatican's representative to the U.N. in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi

The Vatican’s representative to the United Nations in Geneva says that 30 years after the discovery of AIDS, international relief agencies and faith-based groups are beginning to show an openness to the Catholic solution for the illness.

“We are at the beginning of a convergence in the sense that functionaries of international institutions and organizations and people from faith-based groups are talking across the lines and coming to respect each other a bit more,” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told CNA.
Archbishop Tomasi’s comments come three decades after the first medical paper recognizing the illness was published in the U.S.

Based on a study of homosexual men in California and New York, the new ailment was initially labelled GRID, or Gay-related Immune Deficiency. Since then, the U.N. estimates that 65 million people worldwide have been infected by HIV/AIDS, with over 25 million killed.

The most significant point of departure between the Catholic Church and many other bodies involved in the fight against AIDS is over the use of condoms as a preventative measure.

“It has been proven and even documented now that the really effective way is to change your behaviour. And so, this has been our insistence,” Archbishop Tomasi said, stressing the Catholic Church’s emphasis on behavioral change over condom-distribution.

His comments also come in the week that a new report suggests millions of people are dying from AIDS because Western governments are refusing to accept that condoms are ineffective in curbing the spread of the disease.

The report, entitled “The Catholic Church and the Global AIDS Crisis,” is the work of the American public health expert Matthew Hanley.

“We are always told that condoms are the best known ‘technical’ means for preventing HIV transmission, but we are never told that condom promotion has failed to reverse those most severe African epidemics; behavioral modification, on the other hand, has brought them down,” says Hanley. 

Hanley estimates that six million infections would have been averted in sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade if the Catholic approach of fidelity and abstinence had been promoted instead of widespread condom use.

“That this is not common knowledge should give us pause. Public health leaders may increasingly recognize this reality – but remain, by and large, reluctant to emphasize behavioral approaches to AIDS control over technical solutions.”

Hanley’s report also claims that in east Africa, Uganda saw a 10 percent drop in the number of people with AIDS between 1991 and 2001 after investing in abstinence programs. The rates of infection only began to climb again when foreign donor agencies insisted on the increased use of condoms in the fight against AIDS. 

Last month the Vatican held a two-day conference on how best to tackle the AIDS epidemic. It was aimed at finding common ground on the issue and included contributions from those who disagree with the Catholic Church.

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