Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The myth of condoms for disease prevention

(Largely taken from an article of by Father John Flynn, LC)

The simplistic assumption that condoms are the solution to sexually transmitted diseases is increasingly being proved false. Let's forget morality issues for a moment and just focus on matters that can be proven by scientific facts.

In its Jan. 26 issue, the British Medical Journal published a forum on condoms, with contrasting articles for and against on the topic. Even the article in favor of condoms, by Markus Steiner and Willard Cates, admitted that in addition to condoms there is a need for "risk avoidance and risk reduction approaches." Such measures, they explained, include delayed initiation of sexual intercourse, and mutual faithfulness.

In his article putting forward the "no" case, Stephen Genuis clearly stated: "Firstly, condoms cannot be the definitive answer to sexually transmitted infection because they provide insufficient protection against transmission of many common diseases." Genius also pointed out that: "Epidemiological research repeatedly shows that condom familiarity and risk awareness do not result in sustained safer sex choices in real life."

Faced with such arguments about the failure of condoms and sex education campaigns, the reaction is often to call for more of the same. A typical example was the recent news from Australia, where it was found that 60% of Australian women who have unplanned pregnancies were using contraceptive pills or condoms. According to the Jan. 30 report by the Melbourne-based Age newspaper, family planning groups responded by calling for more sexual education programs. Similarly, in the days preceding Brazil's Carnival celebrations authorities announced they would be handing out 19.5 million free condoms, reported Reuters on Jan. 28.

Nevertheless, in his British Medical Journal article Genius pointed out the fallacy of such arguments. In relation to condom and "safe sex" campaigns, he said: "The relentless rise of sexually transmitted infection in the face of unprecedented education about and promotion of condoms is testament to the lack of success of this approach.

"In numerous large studies, concerted efforts to promote use of condoms has consistently failed to control rates of sexually transmitted infection -- even in countries with advanced sex education programs such as Canada, Sweden and Switzerland."

In countries such as Thailand and Cambodia, where sexually transmitted infections have diminished, Genius argued that a careful scrutiny of the data reveals that the changes resulted not from condom use, but from changes in sexual behavior.

Excessive reliance on condoms to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa was criticized in a book published last year. Helen Epstein, in "The Invisible Cure: Africa, The West, And the Fight Against Aids," (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), also had reservations about sexual abstinence campaigns, but did admit the importance of changing sexual behavior.

In trying to find the causes of the high degree of infections in Africa, researchers found that a relatively high proportion of African men and women had simultaneous sexual relations with two or three partners. Compared to serial monogamy more common in Western countries, the concurrent relationships greatly increase the risk of a rapid diffusion of sexual diseases.

Epstein was highly critical of the AIDS campaigns run by Western groups. Organizations such as Population Services International, Family Health International and Marie Stopes International were first active in population control efforts, she noted. In more recent years their activity in campaigns promoting condom use resulted in publicity that in effect promoted sexual activity, and in some cases "bordered on the misogynistic," Epstein added. The message was that casual sex was nothing to worry about, so long as you used a condom. Apart from promoting behavior that only fueled infections, Epstein also commented that often the campaigns clashed with local sensibilities concerning decency and self-respect.

Epstein also criticized the organizations and the United Nations for playing down the role of infidelity in the spread of HIV/AIDS. She recounted her experience at an international AIDS conference in Bangkok, where researchers presenting evidence about the importance of fidelity in preventing infection were "practically booed off the stage."

Another book published last year, "The AIDS Pandemic: The Collision of Epidemiology With Political Correctness" (Radcliffe Publishing), also pointed out the need to change sexual behavior, instead of a wholesale reliance on condoms.

The positive contribution that religion can make in changing sexual behavior was recognized in a RAND Corporation study published last year. People who are HIV-positive and say religion is an important part of their lives are likely to have fewer sexual partners and are less likely to spread the virus, according to the study: "Religiosity, Denominational Affiliation and Sexual Behaviors Among People with HIV in the U.S."

"Religiosity is an untapped resource in the whole struggle against HIV and AIDS, and should be looked at more thoroughly," commented Frank Galvan, lead author of the study in the April 3 press release accompanying the report.

Christianity and sexuality

Authentic Christianity does not teach that sex is bad. On the contrary, sex is so awesome and sacred that it deserves special attention and consideration.

The Church's view about condoms does not base itself on to what extent it may help resolve health problems. Sexuality, explains No. 2332 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, affects all of the human person, body and soul. It's not some sort of sport or passtime. It concerns affectivity, the capacity to love and procreate, and forming communion with others. It is a very deep experience.e

Sexuality is truly human and personal when it is integrated into the relationship of one person to another, a relationship that is a complete and lifelong mutual gift of a man and a woman, the Catechism observes (No. 2337).

Benedict XVI addressed the HIV/AIDS issue in a couple of recent speeches made when receiving the credentials of new ambassadors. On Dec. 13, in his address to Peter Hitjitevi Katjavivi from Namibia, the Pope recognized the urgent need to halt the spread of infections.
"I assure the people of your country that the Church will continue to assist those who suffer from AIDS and to support their families," the Pope stated.

The Church's contribution to the goal of eradicating AIDS, the Pontiff continued, "cannot but draw its inspiration from the Christian conception of human love and sexuality." This vision sees marriage as a total, reciprocal and exclusive communion of love between a man and a woman, Benedict XVI explained.

The same day, in a speech to Elizabeth Ya Eli Harding, Gambia's new ambassador to the Holy See, the Pope stated that while medicine and education have a part to play in combating HIV/AIDS: "Promiscuous sexual conduct is a root cause of many moral and physical ills and must be overcome by promoting a culture of marital faithfulness and moral integrity."