Pope relents (a bit) on condoms, Burmese junta couldn’t care less about HIV

In extremely convoluted comments, Pope Benedict XVI is reported to have said condoms may be permissible in certain situations. This appears to be the first time a head of the Roman Catholic Church has varied the church’s long-standing opposition to condom use.

His comments were made in interviews for a book, excerpts from which were published by a Vatican newspaper over the weekend.

The book – Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times – is based on a series of interview the Pope gave the German Catholic journalist, Peter Seewald, earlier this year.

When asked whether the Catholic Church was not opposed in principle to the use of condoms, the Pope replied: “She of course does not regard it as a real or moral solution, but, in this or that case, there can be nonetheless, in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.”

The Pope gives the example of the use of condoms by male prostitutes as “a first step towards moralisation”, even though condoms are “not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection”.

— BBC, 20 Nov 2010, Pope condones condom use in exceptional cases – book, Link.

He stopped far short of endorsing widespread condom use — which the United Nations and international health agencies consider a proven way to stop a rapidly spreading epidemic in its tracks. Nonetheless, it is a clear reversal of his stand last year as he visited Cameroon, when he said, “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” referring to HIV/Aids. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

So, this latest change of course can only be welcome, though he has not yet spelled out what he considered permissible circumstances. It was interesting that of all the possible examples he could give to illustrate what he meant by justifiable circumstances, he cited male prostitutes. But,

A UNAIDS spokesman in Geneva said that while over 80 percent of HIV infections are caused through sexual transmission, only 4 percent to 10 percent result from sex between men. There are no reliable statistics about how many infections might be prevented if male prostitutes routinely used condoms, said Mahesh Mahalingam.

— Associated Press, 21 Nov 2010, Catholics, campaigners debate pope condom remarks

Why didn’t the pope use an example of a HIV-positive person and his or her spouse? Surely, the tragedy of a faithful wife (and it’s usually the wife) who is infected by her philandering husband, and then passes the virus on to her newborn child is particularly deserving of urgent attention? Why use an example of male-to-male sex responsible for a relatively small number of HIV transmissions?

My guess is that while permitting condom use in male-male situations was already hard enough to arrive at, permitting it in opposite-sex situations is harder. The way I see it, it is not yet happening. The Catholic Church remains deeply opposed to condoms as a form of contraception. How would use of a condom for disease prevention be distinguished from its use for contraceptive purposes in opposite-sex relationships?

Completely misplaced dogma — opposition to artificial contraception — is still standing in the way of HIV prevention.

* * * * *

That widespread condom use works can be seen in the the example of Cambodia. As reported by Avert.org, the spread of HIV was halted and preliminary results suggest that prevalence has even been reduced between 2003 and 2009. Prevalence is expressed as the percentage of the adults aged 15 – 49 who are HIV-positive.

Cambodia’s HIV epidemic can be traced back to 1991. After an initial rapid increase, HIV infection levels declined after the late 1990s and by 2003 HIV prevalence was estimated at 1.2%. Results published in 2009 from the first national population-based survey estimated HIV prevalence at 0.6%. It’s believed that interventions with sex workers, carried out by the government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), played a role in this decline. The adoption of a ‘100% condom’ policy that enforced condom use in brothels led to a substantial rise in condom use among sex workers and their clients and a drop in HIV infection levels among brothel-based sex workers.


As with complex problems like HIV, there are still hotposts. Intervention remains difficult in commercial sex taking place outside of brothels and male-to-male sex.

* * * * *

Burma, like Cambodia, has a serious HIV problem. Avert.org reports estimates of about 240,000 infected adults in the country. In a population of 48 million, and assuming about 60 percent of the population are adults aged 15 – 49, that would mean a prevalence rate of about 0.83 percent, which makes it the second-highest among Asean countries (after Thailand).

If that is not bad enough, today’s news suggests that the government has no concern whatsoever about this threat. This comes barely a week after the good news that revered leader Aung San Suu Kyi (left)  has finally been released from house arrest after many years.

AIDS clinic faces pressure after Suu Kyi visit

An AIDS clinic visited by Myanmar’s democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi has come under pressure from the government since her visit, its director said Sunday.

Suu Kyi — the Nobel Peace Prize laureate released from house arrest this month — visited the center in the suburbs of the capital Yangon on Wednesday, its director said.

She was greeted by thousands of people during her stop there, which lasted several hours, said the director, Yazar, who uses only one name.

She chose to visit the HIV/AIDS center because she wanted to meet people who need help the most, Yazar quoted her as saying.

The center has since been warned to leave its premises by local authorities in Dangon township and by the ministry of health, Yazar said.

“We are very worried because the authorities gave us until November 25 to move out of our place,” he said.

“We have received this kind of threat before, but this time the warning is rude, much stronger and seems to be very serious,” he said.


On Friday, officials from the military government’s ministry of public health came to inform the center that they cannot operate their service and need to move all patients to the government run HIV/AIDS center instead, Yazar said.

— CNN, 21 Nov 2010, Link.

The non-governmental HIV/Aids Centre had been operating since 2002. CNN reported that it is financed by donations, but did not say whether donations came from local sources or foreign.

* * * * *

Many Indonesian organisations fighting HIV also depend on donations, mainly foreign. With the shrinking value of the US Dollar and Euro, and continuing economic difficulties in the West, they are anticipating funding problems.

In 2008, 61 percent or $30.9 million of Indonesia’s AIDS funding came from international donations, while the remaining 39 percent came from central and district governments, the Indonesian National AIDS Commission (KPA) reported.


According to Aditya Wardana from Indonesia’s UNGASS Forum, HIV/AIDS programs run by civil society groups and NGOs are at risk of falling by the wayside when donations stop.

The Indonesia UNGASS Forum is a coalition of 17 civil society groups working in HIV/AIDS prevention who monitor the execution of the HIV/AIDS prevention road map drawn up by the UNGASS. They recently released a report which highlighted, among other things, government spending for HIV/AIDS programs.

“When the funds stop, the achievements attained during the period when the programs were running will be wasted. Without funds, these societies wouldn’t be able to follow up with their clients,” he said.

— Jakarta Post, 28 Oct 2010, Indonesia’s HIV/AIDS programs at risk. Link.

UNGASS is the United Nations General Assembly Special Session, dedicated to fighting global scourges including HIV/Aids and drugs.

The Jakarta Post reported that more than 100 civil society groups ceased catering to people with HIV/AIDS when their common foreign donor stopped their funding, forcing groups to fire workers and therefore severing links to their clients.

Indonesia has, among Asian countries, one of the fastest growing epidemics. It has an estimated prevalence rate of 0.2 percent, and about 330,000 people living with HIV/Aids at the end of 2009. Papua province is the worst affected with a prevalence rate of 2.4 percent — the disease having spread into the general population from high-risk groups.

* * * * *

Swaziland, a small African country (population 1 million), shows what can happen if the disease is unchecked. Life expectancy is in free-fall to levels not seen since before the Industrial Revolution.

In a story filed by Xinhua News Agency and published in the Kenyan newspaper Sunday Nation, it was reported that

HIV/Aids and tuberculosis are killing adults in Swaziland, reducing people’s life expectancy from 60 years to just 31 and pushing many children to orphanages.

As a result, the adult workforce is declining and children are joining the labour force so as to feed themselves and go to raise money for school, according to a recent report by an international medical group.


According to United Nations health reports, the HIV/Aids infection rate in Swaziland is unprecedented and the highest in the world at 26.1 per cent of adults and over 50 per cent of those in their 20s.


“Life expectancy has halved within two decades, plummeting from 60 to just 31 years. People are dying in large numbers, and tuberculosis is currently the main cause of mortality among adults,” Peguillan said.

As a result, many children are being made orphans and the adult workforce is declining,” she added.

— Sunday Nation, 19 Nov 2010, Aids, TB cutting life expectancy of Swaziland’s people .Link.

This is nothing short of demographic and economic collapse.

* * * * *

As World Aids Day approaches, Singapore’s Health Ministry is expected to release its latest data soon. The most recent country report for Singapore filed with UNGASS, dated March 2010, says our prevalence rate among residents (i.e. citizens and Permanent Residents) is 0.09 percent of those aged 15 and above.

New infections figures have climbed every year since we started collecting statistics. In no year has it ever come down from the level of the previous year. In the last few years, we have seen over 400 new cases per annum. Nothing to be complacent about.

7 Responses to “Pope relents (a bit) on condoms, Burmese junta couldn’t care less about HIV”

  1. 1 samson 22 November 2010 at 12:55

    I wonder if all those priests violating all those boys all over the world all these centuries are practising safe sex.

  2. 2 patriot 23 November 2010 at 11:35

    [comment removed – because irrelevant]

  3. 3 male prostitues for women? 23 November 2010 at 12:16

    I do not have the full text.

    Did the pope mention male prostitutes in the context of men-to-men sex, or did he just mentioned “male prostitutes” without mentioning whether these are male prostitutes that serve women or male prostitutes that serve men?

    If he did not mention what type of male prostitutes, then perhaps we should assume that he was talking about male prostitutes in general (i.e. those serving women, those serving men, and those serving both women & men) and not about men-to-men situations.

  4. 4 Desmond 23 November 2010 at 13:13

    “New infections figures have climbed every year since we started collecting statistics. In no year has it ever come down from the level of the previous year. In the last few years, we have seen over 400 new cases per annum. Nothing to be complacent about.”

    This is very scary, considering that we are such a small country and that the gahmen can actually “do anything it wants” and yet, they don’t see this as a problem big enough for them to do anything.

  5. 5 KiWeTO 23 November 2010 at 13:59

    They see it as a problem.

    They just don’t see the cost-benefits of offering free condoms to limit infection.
    (economic costs of infection can be immeasurable; which do they choose to recognize?)

    Cheaper to run ads and fund abstinence campaigns, in their minds, than enable more protected sex to take place (vis-a-vis the now un-protected-sex that still takes place.)

    Free condoms at Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal might prove to be more effective at lowering infection rates than high minded proclamations.


  6. 6 Katherine Scott 24 November 2010 at 20:18

    I would be a fan of you if u were a writer…
    very well written…<3 🙂 😀

  7. 7 St Sebastian 24 November 2010 at 21:34

    The Vatican is furiously backing away from those remarks. Church officials are saying they’re the private opinions of the man, not official church teaching. Confusion now reigns.

    New York Times has a story today, saying “The Vatican itself has furiously played down Benedict’s words, or rather contextualized them, noting that the pope was not changing church doctrine banning contraception, or justifying condom use — even though the Vatican newspaper clearly used the phrase “justified in some cases.” ”

    There’s also confusion whether he referred to male prostitutes or both sexes of prostitutes. Apparently the interview was conducted in German, but the excerpts were then translated into Italian. NYT suggests that the German version (male only) was approved by the pope but not the Italian version.

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