Tue, Jul 13, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Condoms not the key to AIDS fight: Ugandan leader

AP , BANGKOK

The Ugandan leader credited with slashing HIV rates in his country insisted yesterday that condoms are not the ultimate solution to fighting the AIDS scourge, saying abstinence and loving relationships in marriage are even more crucial.

Ugandan President Yoweri Mu-seveni's comments on the second day of the International AIDS Conference were in line with the policy of US President George W. Bush but at odds with a majority of researchers and activists fighting the disease.

Condom use has been promoted as a frontline defense in the fight against AIDS by countries such as Thailand where a campaign to get sex workers to always use condoms yielded a sevenfold reduction in HIV rates in 13 years.

An epidemiologist tracking Asia's emerging epidemics told conference delegates just ahead of Museveni's speech that more countries -- including China and Bangladesh -- face HIV problems largely driven by prostitution, and that promoting condoms is best to block further spread.

Museveni said loving relationships based on trust are crucial in the HIV-fighting campaign, and that "the principle of condoms is not the ultimate solution."

"In some cultures sexual intercourse is so elaborate that condoms are a hindrance," he told a conference plenary session. "Let the condom be used by people who cannot abstain, cannot be faithful or are estranged."

Museveni -- in a departure from many Western proponents of abstinence before wedlock -- said the concept of marriage should be flexible, and that sticking with someone when a relationship turns sour means that an unfaithful partner brings home an infection.

"Ideological monogamy is also part of the problem," he said.

Uganda has waged a successful battle against the spread of HIV in a rare success story for sub-Saharan Africa -- though some experts say it's unclear how that success has been achieved.

Uganda has enlisted religious groups to help spread information, and pioneered a strategy that later became known as "ABC" or "Abstinence, Being faithful and Condoms" -- in that order -- a policy backed by Bush. Critics say promoting condoms should come first.

It has brought the infection rate down from more than 30 percent in the early 1990s to about 6 percent of the country's 25 million people last year.

CRITICISM

The Thai government was also criticized yesterday for pushing HIV-infected people into the background at the opening ceremony of the International AIDS Conference.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was the first speaker late on Sunday but left without waiting to hear the evening's last speaker: HIV-infected Thai delegate Paisan Swannawong. Because other dignitaries followed Thaksin out of protocol, Paisan spoke to a largely empty arena.

"Row upon row of political leaders and bureaucrats are all too eager to speak to HIV-infected to curry favor with the popular and the powerful, while the real issues are ignored," said Stuart Flavell, of the Global Network of People Living With AIDS.

Paisan, of the Thai Drug Users Network, spoke eloquently about his experience as a drug user and the human rights of people living with HIV.

The prime minister lit a giant candle in a symbolic inauguration of the meeting before leaving, prompting UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and most other conference attendees to file out for a buffet dinner outside the arena.

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