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The U.S. government's emphasis on abstinence-only programs to prevent HIV is hobbling Africa's battle against the pandemic by downplaying the role of condoms, a senior United Nations official said on Monday. Stephen Lewis, the U.N. secretary general's special envoy for AIDS in Africa, said fundamentalist Christian ideology is driving the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief--with disastrous results, including condom shortages in Uganda.
The Bush administration favors prevention programs that focus on abstinence rather than condom use and has more than doubled funding for U.S. abstinence-only programs over the past five years. As part of President Bush's global AIDS plan, the U.S. government has already budgeted about $8 million this year for abstinence-only projects in Uganda, human rights groups say.
Activists in both Uganda and the United States say the country is now in the grip of a condom shortage so severe that men are using plastic garbage bags in an effort to protect themselves. "There is no question in my mind that the condom crisis in Uganda is being driven and exacerbated by PEPFAR and by the extreme policies that the Administration in the U.S. is now pursuing in the emphasis on abstinence," Lewis told journalists in a teleconference. "That distortion of the preventive apparatus is resulting in great damage and undoubtedly will cause significant numbers of infections which should never have occurred."
Many health experts say condoms are the most effective bulwark against AIDS.
The Office of the U.S. global AIDS coordinator, which administers PEPFAR, did not immediately return calls seeking comment. It has rejected criticism over condom policy in the past, saying it maintains a balanced approach to prevention.
Uganda had been praised for cutting HIV infection rates to around 6% today from 30% in the early 1990s, a rare success story in Africa's battle against the disease. But President Yoweri Museveni's government has come under criticism for sidelining its condom policy, a move activists tie to pressure from Washington through its PEPFAR program.
The Ugandan government, which in 2004 recalled free condoms over quality fears, has failed to provide alternatives--pushing the price of store-bought condoms up threefold, activists say. (Reuters)