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HIV Rise in Uganda

Disturbing news from Uganda via (surprisingly) the Washington Times:

KAMPALA, Uganda – Aid workers and foreign activists say Uganda is moving away from the highly successful “ABC” formula that won the country international recognition as Africa’s leader in the fight against AIDS.

The pioneering formula — which stands for “abstain, be faithful or use a condom” — helped the government reduce the infection rate in Uganda from 18 percent to 6 percent in a decade.

But the infection rate remained at 6 percent in recent years and rose to 7 percent in the most recent Health Ministry survey. Critics say this is because the government — influenced by evangelical Christians — has de-emphasized condom use, focusing exclusively on abstinence and marital fidelity.

A government official involved in AIDS issues, who refused to be named, said the shift reflects the influence of first lady Janet Museveni, a vocal evangelical Christian.

Mrs Museveni’s own views were reported in 2002:

CONDOMS have a role to play, but cannot be the main means of stemming the tide of AIDS, the First Lady Janet Museveni has told an international Christian conference in the United States of America.

Mrs. Museveni said, “The advent of new drugs and condoms which have now become available and which make AIDS sound less dangerous” should not make people involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS to become complacent.

According to the US government’s Washington File news report issued yesterday, Mrs. Museveni addressed the International Christian Conference on HIV/AIDS in Washington on February 20. She was introduced at the conference by Senator Jesse Helms, a Republican from North Carolina.

“Young people must be taught the virtues of abstinence, self-control and postponement of pleasure and sometimes sacrifice,” Mrs. Museveni said.

The current setback was addressed by the Guardian a few days ago:

New billboards have appeared in Uganda, signed by the office of the first lady and bearing the logo of USAid – the US development agency. One has a picture of a glamourous, smiling young woman, saying “She’s saving herself for marriage – how about you?”

A local condom brand, Engabu, was erroneously declared to be of poor quality and recalled, creating a condom shortage. A subsequent letter to the newspaper added graphic details:

The lack of condoms in Uganda has led people to desperate measures, including the use of plastic bags…

Political and religious ideologies driven from Washington and the Vatican are having an immense impact. Over 50% of all US HIV/Aids funding to Uganda is currently being spent on abstinence programmes. Many Ugandans are Catholics, and the antipathy of the church towards condom use creates huge tensions. To limit access to condoms is to condemn many people to the dangers of HIV; to focus on abstinence is to ignore the limited scope many women have to refuse sex. Such refusal can often lead to sexual coercion and violence, including rape. And now, even if a Ugandan woman can negotiate safe sex, it is increasingly unlikely that she and her partner will be able to get hold of condoms.

Janet Gruber

These newspaper reports echo recent studies from Human Rights Watch and the Alan Guttmacher Institute. As I noted on this blog a few weeks ago, similar evangelical strategies in Malawi have had uncertain results.