South African church attacks condom promotion

Promoting condoms has failed to stem the spread of AIDS and may have increased promiscuity, the Roman Catholic Church in South Africa says, sparking criticism from AIDS activists.

Cardinal Wilfred Napier said there was simply no evidence that promoting condoms had worked, citing the fact that as a contraceptive, they come with a failure rate which implies they probably do not always stop HIV transmission.

"Can you show me one example where condoms have stopped the spread of AIDS?," he said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. "If you look at South Africa, millions have been spent promoting condoms and we have one of the highest rates in the world. By promoting condoms we are promoting immoral behaviour."

Activists say some 600 people die every day from AIDS in South Africa and the surrounding region has the world's highest HIV infection rates.

But Napier said promiscuity was even more damaging to society than the pandemic.

South African AIDS lobby the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) said the cardinal's comments undermined attempts to encourage the use of condoms -- still resisted by many African men.

"This is ideologically based, morally judgemental wishful thinking. It's totally impractical to expect all people to abstain. The reason the programme in South Africa has been a disaster is we've been too insipid in talking about sex and promoting condoms," TAC spokesman Nathan Geffen said.

On Saturday, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the Vatican's opposition to all forms of contraception.

Napier said the only country to show success against AIDS was Uganda, which promoted abstinence rather than condoms.

"If we look at the one example of success we have which is Uganda then there is a clear message that it was a return to moral values that has halted the disease," he said. "Where condoms have been promoted, we have not seen the effect we've seen in Uganda."

The Ugandan government has made condom distribution a mainstay of its efforts to fight AIDS.

But spokesman for United Nations body UNAIDS Richard Delate said Uganda's success had come from promoting abstinence in tandem with condom usage. In other countries, condom promotion had stopped the spread of AIDS, he said.

"If you look at the example of places like Thailand, where there has been condom promotion for a long time, then they have kept their HIV rate under control," he said. "It's important that people have a choice. At no point should people try to prevent people having access to condoms."

Giving young people sex education delayed the onset of sexual activity and made children more likely to use condoms when they did start having sex, he said.

In any case, there are so few condoms in sub-Saharan Africa the average man only has access to three a year, UNAIDS says.

However, Napier said anecdotal evidence suggested teaching children about condoms encouraged them to have sex.

"This is a devastating disease," Napier said.

"You've got to challenge where the problem lies and that is in practicing irresponsible behaviour."