Fundamentalism seen hurting AIDS effort

Kobe, Japan - Religious fundamentalism that rejects condom use and scientific treatment of people with HIV/AIDS is threatening to reverse a quarter century of progress in battling the disease, participants at an international conference warned Sunday.

"There is a new AIDS order emerging in the world today. It is resulting in the dilution of science and scientific methods of treating AIDS and the diminution of human rights of those who are HIV positive," said Anand Grover, an Indian lawyer who works with patients in that country.

He was speaking at one of the symposiums in Kobe for the 7th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.

"This new order puts a gag on information and services governments provide, like condoms and needles, stifles human rights concerns, and blocks public health measures to change behavior while preaching that you shouldn't have sex or do drugs. It encourages stiff penalties and punishments and propagates antiquated morals to control behavior," Grover said, citing both the U.S. and India as examples of countries where such an order is most visibly emerging.

"We hear lots of talk on morality, but people are forgetting that AIDS is a health problem that affects all levels of society. But there is no room for ideology in developing AIDS policies," said Nafis Sadik, a Pakistani woman who is a special adviser to the U.N. Secretary General and special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific.

In the U.S., the past several years have seen much funding for AIDS prevention go to groups with a fundamentalist Christian agenda that emphasizes abstaining from homosexual or drug activities. Governments of other countries like India have faced pressure from fundamentalist Hindu and Muslim groups to curb the availability of condoms and to stop assistance policies for those affected by the epidemic.

Yet in Iran, which is under Muslim law, the courts have issued rulings over the past few years that make it easier to offer treatment to people who contracted HIV/AIDS through intravenous drug use, according to Grover.

In 2001, Iran's Health Ministry publicly endorsed harm reduction and offered needles, as well as the use of a drug called methadone, which can help slow the spread of the HIV. A local court ruled in 2005 that the use of the drug, although forbidden under Muslim law, may be permitted if it saves lives.

Constance Carrino, director of the office of HIV/AIDS at USAID, said it has been the policy of the U.S. government since 2003 to focus on prevention techniques.

Speaking to an audience clearly hostile to U.S. policy on HIV/AIDS, Carrino said the U.S. has provided information to people in 15 countries around the world on the risks of engaging in unsafe sex and to drug users on the risks of sharing needles.