Pope reopens controversy by calling AIDS an "ethical issue"
By Kate Thomas Nov 20, 2011, 13:01 GMT
Monrovia/Cotonou, Benin - Agnes Camara used to spend hours worrying about AIDS. 'It was all I thought about,' said the 35-year-old resident of Cotonou, Benin's largest city and the focus of Pope Benedict XVI's visit this weekend.
Infected by her husband, who has since died of the disease, Camara unknowingly passed the HIV virus onto her two young children. 'I only got tested because my neighbour suggested it after the death of Franck, my husband,' she said. 'Then I panicked. I didn't have the money to treat myself and the children. I was embarrassed.'
In the Beninese coastal town of Ouidah Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI unveiled a comprehensive document on the Roman Catholic Church's role in Africa. It encompasses the issue of HIV/AIDS, calling it 'an ethical problem' that requires 'a change of behaviour' such as sexual abstinence, rejection of sexual promiscuity and fidelity within marriage.
That echoes a comment of the pontiff's from 2009, en route to Cameroon on his first Africa trip, when he caused a global outcry when he said using condoms 'can even exacerbate' the problem of HIV/AIDS.
Camara would disagree with the pope. Her husband was her first lover and the only man she has slept with. 'The problem was that he didn't get tested in time,' she said. 'I don't know how he caught the virus. There are many ways,' she said.
A local NGO program, part-funded by the Catholic aid agency CARITAS, helped Camara access anti-retroviral drugs. 'I think about AIDS when we take the medicine,' she told dpa by telephone. 'But otherwise, I just get on,' she said.
Much of West Africa's HIV-infected population is doing the same. Although sub-Saharan Africa is home to 68% of the world's HIV-positive population, the UN AIDS organisation says improved access to treatment is saving lives. Between 2004 and 2009, AIDS-related deaths decreased by 20% in sub-Saharan Africa.
The reputation of HIV/AIDS in Africa can be misleading. Benin's HIV rate is just 1.2 per cent, barely ten times that of Germany's, which is 0.1%.
The UN AIDS programme says the prevalence of HIV in West Africa actually 'remains comparatively low...estimated at 2% or under in 12 countries in 2009.' Nigeria, a country populated by more than 150 million, has an HIV rate of just 3.6%.
Although West African countries frequently top corruption and poverty indexes, it is southern Africa that carries the weight of HIV/AIDS issues. Swaziland has more HIV positive people than anywhere else in the world - 25.9% of its people are infected, according to UN AIDS.
Camara said she now has 'more worrying things' in her life than HIV. 'I don't currently have a job,' the university graduate said. 'Creating job prospects for people is probably a bigger issue than AIDS here. We talk much more about jobs than AIDS. If we talk about health, it is usually about malaria,' she said.
Two of the largest NGOs in Benin are CARITAS and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), both of which have ties to the Roman Catholic Church. The latter was founded by American bishops, while the former says it is 'as much part of the Church as going to Mass on Sunday.' Both receive donations from the global Catholic community but neither has access to church funds.
'People tend to think of the church in terms of its spiritual role but in Benin it's much more than that,' said Christophe Droeven, CRS' country director in Benin. 'The service to the poor is really important. The church is playing an important part in the education sector, running formal and informal schools, as well as in the health sector running health care centers and hospitals.'
'We [are] also ... working on alleviating the effects of HIV through the local Church,' he said, 'and [have] an anti-malaria program, in which we are reaching the poorest through the community network in Benin. We're working out of the health center at the community level to reach young boys and girls as well as pregnant women.'
Reliable data is of course hard to come by, but health clinics and local NGOs in West African countries agree that condom use has increased in recent years.
In Liberia, which also has a relatively low HIV rate at 1.5%, mass-produced 'Star condoms', which retail at about 0.3 Eur per packet, are advertised from giant billboards. They feature photos of young, smartly-dressed men, under the slogan, 'Important and cool men use Star condoms.'
In Cotonou, Agnes Camara said she wished she had used them. 'If we had known my husband was HIV positive, we would have done,' she said.