The Pope, AIDS, and Condoms

From The Wall Street Journal:

Pope Benedict XVI said on his way to Africa Tuesday that condoms weren't the answer in the continent's fight against HIV, his first explicit statement on an issue that has divided even clergy working with AIDS patients.

Pope Benedict had never directly addressed condom use. He has said that the Roman Catholic Church is in the forefront of the battle against AIDS. The Vatican encourages sexual abstinence to fight the spread of the disease.

"You can't resolve it with the distribution of condoms," the pope told reporters aboard the Alitalia plane headed to Yaounde, Cameroon, where he will begin a seven-day pilgrimage on the continent. "On the contrary, it increases the problem."

Not surprisingly, Benedict's statements elicited much criticism.  It was easy to imagine that the Catholic church's teachings about contraception were dictating his viewpoint rather than a rational assessment of the situation on the ground.  Criticism of his statements acknowledged that condoms aren't foolproof and sometimes fail either due to operator error or loss of integrity (link).

Then the official transcript tweaked his words to make it a little less extreme, indicating that condoms risked increasing the problem (link).

Then Edward Green came to the pope's defense.  I assume Green's views on this subject are controversial, but he does have some credibility (link):

Edward C. Green is one of the world's leading field researchers on the spread of HIV and public health interventions. He's the director of the Harvard AIDS Prevention Research Project, and is a leading advocate for evidence-based interventions.

I understand Green's point, and I think it's a good one.  If condoms are the answer for AIDS in Africa, we should be able to see it in the data.  As he said (link):

We have found no consistent associations between condom use and lower HIV-infection rates, which, 25 years into the pandemic, we should be seeing if this intervention was working.

How could condoms contribute to the problem?

...the best evidence we have supports the pope’s comments. He stresses that “condoms have been proven to not be effective at the ‘level of population.’”

“There is,” Green adds, “a consistent association shown by our best studies, including the U.S.-funded ‘Demographic Health Surveys,’ between greater availability and use of condoms and higher (not lower) HIV-infection rates. This may be due in part to a phenomenon known as risk compensation, meaning that when one uses a risk-reduction ‘technology’ such as condoms, one often loses the benefit (reduction in risk) by ‘compensating’ or taking greater chances than one would take without the risk-reduction technology.”

In an interview with Christianity Today (link), Green commented further on what he thinks is and isn't working:

We are seeing HIV decline in eight or nine African countries. In every case, there's been a decrease in the proportion of men and women reporting multiple sexual partners. Ironically, in the first country where we saw this, Uganda, HIV prevalence decline stopped in about 2004, and infection rates appear to be rising again. This appears to be in part because emphasis on interventions that promote monogamy and fidelity has weakened significantly, and earlier behavior changes have eroded. There has been a steady increase in the very behavior that once accounted for rates declining — namely, having multiple and concurrent sex partners. There is a widespread belief that somehow Uganda had fewer condoms. In fact, foreign donors have persuaded Uganda to put even more emphasis on condoms.

I can buy that it's possible that on the level of populations the focus on condom distribution might counter-intuitively fail to reduce the prevalence of AIDS and that this complexity may be underappreciated.  Complicated issues are often over-simplified into inaccurate or incomplete sound bites. 

On the other hand, I think that the pope's and Green's comments are also an over-simplification because they seem not to acknowledge this fact (as others have pointed out): an African woman for whom monogamous sex with an uninfected spouse is not an option is much safer if her spouse uses a condom.  That's the difference between considering the efficacy of condom availability on the individual versus population level.  We should be concerned about both.

Part of the issue is also probably that passing out condoms makes someone some cash and is much easier than the hard work of significantly changing a culture's views regarding sexual fidelity.  It probably makes sense to start with the easier job...but not just stop there either.