PARIS (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI's denunciation of condom use to prevent the spread of HIV sparked an international outcry on Wednesday as he toured Africa, the continent hardest hit by the disease.
The pope told reporters on his plane as he headed to Cameroon on Tuesday that AIDS "cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems."
The solution lies in a "spiritual and human awakening" and "friendship for those who suffer," said Benedict, who will also visit Angola during the weeklong trip.
The church has long banned the use of condoms and other contraceptives, despite agreement among scientists that consistent and correct use of condoms substantially reduces the spread of HIV.
Michel Kazatchkine, the head of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, demanded that the pope retract the statement, saying "these remarks are unacceptable."
"It's a denial of the epidemic. And to make these remarks on a continent that unfortunately is a continent where 70 percent of the people who have AIDS die, it's absolutely unbelievable," he told France Inter radio.
The UN programme against AIDS said condoms were an "essential part of combination prevention."
"With more than 7,400 new infections each day, the world cannot stop the AIDS epidemic without stopping new HIV infections," UNAIDS said.
The French and Belgian governments both expressed concern over the pope's remarks, which they said could harm public health campaigns.
"While it is not up to us to pass judgment on Church doctrine, we consider that such comments are a threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life," French foreign ministry Eric Chevallier told reporters.
Belgium's health ministry said the minister Laurette Onkelinx "was stupified to learn of the remarks."
The New York Times wrote in an editorial that the pope was "grievously wrong."
"Health authorities consider condoms a valuable component of any well-rounded programme to prevent the spread of AIDS. It seems irresponsible to blame condoms for making the epidemic worse," it said.
AIDS activists warned the pope's statement could harm efforts to rein in the disease that has infected 22 million people in Africa -- two thirds of the global caseload.
"Is the pope living in the 21st century?" asked Alain Fogue, a spokesman for MOCPAT, a treatment campaign in Cameroon.
"To claim that condoms 'aggravate' the problem of AIDS goes totally against all the efforts made by the Cameroonian government," Fogue added.
In Angola, where the pope arrives Friday, activists said Benedict's message should apply only to church doctrine, not public health.
"Condoms are a method of preventing AIDS, not just in Africa but in all the world, and we have to use all forms of prevention that we can against this disease," said Delma Monteiro, who heads a prominent HIV programme.
Judith Melby, an Africa specialist at the Christian Aid charity in Britain, said the pope was causing confusion.
"The pope's comments are not very helpful. It's sending a confusing message to Africa, in those countries where the Catholic church is very important," she said.
"Our policy is that abstinence is an important part of the package, but abstinence is not the only thing that is going to prevent HIV transmission."
Most prevention campaigns include condoms because the virus cannot pass through latex.
"The access to condoms is absolutely essential to combat HIV," Mohga Kamal-Yanni, an AIDS specialist for British charity Oxfam, told AFP.
"If we want to stop new infections which is happening among young people, we do need to use condoms, we need to expand the use of condoms, not to decrease it."
In India, where at least two million people have HIV, activists urged a more pragmatic approach on condoms.
"It is not being promoted as a lifestyle product. You need a pragmatic approach, you need to set aside all your queasiness and deal with it as a public health issue," said Akhila Sivadas, who heads the Centre for Advocacy and Research, a prominent volunteer group.
In Malawi, Francina Nyirenda, who heads an umbrella group of AIDS programmes, said she hoped more people would ignore the pope's message in a country where the disease has cut life expectancy to 36 years.
"Condom use is OK," she said. "Without condoms, Malawi would perish."
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