Catholics Ponder The Unthinkable In Fight Against Virus

Dave Burke

Roman Catholic opposition to the use of condoms has been thrust under the spotlight again this week after figures from the UN programme on HIV/AIDS showed that the killer virus has continued to spread at an alarming rate.

UNAIDS estimate that 49.5 million people around the globe are living with HIV/AIDS, and 4.3 million contracted it in 2006. On the day the figures were released, the head of the Vatican's (Pontifical) Council for Health Pastoral Care announced that a study commissioned by Pope Benedict on the use of condoms is being reviewed by top theologians.

The 200-page study, which has not been released, is said to be based on scientific and theological data. It was commissioned by the pontiff after his election last year. Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, whose department produced the report, said at a Vatican conference this week:  "We hope the theologians and the Holy Father will say what is best regarding the subject … but no response from the church can be one that encourages a libertine sexual attitude.

"Cardinal Barragan has been tight-lipped about the document's implications, but sources within the Vatican have suggested that he favours the use of condoms for married couples where one partner is HIV-positive. It is a subject that has caused divisions within the church for years. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the liberal former Cardinal of Milan who was linked with the papacy after the death of Pope John Paul II, once described condoms as  "a lesser evil" in the fight against AIDS. An announcement by Pope Benedict is expected in February.

A change in policy would clearly be welcomed by AIDS campaigners. Dr Rachel Baggaley, head of HIV at Christian Aid, said:  "Our work at Christian Aid is about HIV prevention and we are very much in favour of using everything that is proven to work. Although abstention and fidelity are both good strategies, they have to rely on both people knowing the status. Fidelity does not work if one person is positive and
that is often the case."

She added:  "Condoms, when they are correctly used and if they are used every time people have sex, will massively decrease the chances of getting HIV." Dr Baggaley also said that most new cases of HIV infection in Africa and India affect married women. "In India and Africa the biggest risk for women acquiring HIV is being married," she noted. Christian Aid figures show that in India 90 per cent of HIV-positive women are infected by their husband.

Alvaro Bermejo, executive director of the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, said:  "Correct and consistent condom use provides effective protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and any measures taken to de-stigmatise and promote consistent use would be welcomed and could have a significant impact." It is a tragic fact that thousands of women across the world are unknowingly infected by their husbands despite abstaining before marriage and being loyal to their husbands in wedlock.

In 1991, 22-year-old Beatrice Were learned that she had caught the virus from her husband, Francis. Now 38, she has become one of Africa's most renowned critics of abstention and fidelity as the sole means of HIV prevention. She now heads the National Community of Women Living With AIDS in her native Uganda, which has more than 40,000 members. "Most women abstain until marriage only to be infected by their husband.

Even when you may be faithful you cannot account for your husband's behaviour," she said. Beatrice's husband died in 1991, and she did not get tested herself for four months after his death. "I was very bitter and the bitterness took years to go away. I realised that he knew and he did not tell me. I really felt betrayed," she said. But she's sceptical about whether limiting the new doctrine will be effective in a climate where most African states do not have laws against marital rape.

"The challenge for women is that having children is looked at as a big thing and the man will decide how many children you should have," she said. "It wouldn't be enough because we know that many people who are sexually active are not necessarily married."She stated that the Catholic Church exerts a very powerful influence in Uganda. The 2002 National Census indicated that 41.9 per cent of the country's population were Catholic.

But she said that one of the main challenges the pro-condom lobby face is misinformation about their use. In her homeland many people are led to believe that condom use can lead to cervical cancer, which discourages people from using them, she said. Beatrice added:  "From a human rights perspective all people who need to use condoms should have access to condoms."

Beatrice's views struck a chord with Dr Baggaley, who said:  "Although we would support all other forms of HIV prevention we also have to be realistic and understand young people in all countries do have sex. If they are going to it is much better that they are given information about condoms so they can protect themselves from HIV and other STDs."

It is estimated that between six billion and nine billion condoms are used worldwide each year. In 2000 the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that more than seven billion more condoms are needed in developing countries to achieve a significant reduction in HIV infection.