At the fourteenth international AIDS conference, the gulf between the United States and the rest of the world widened as US officials touted policies that world health experts agree are ineffective strategies for stemming the pandemic. Without stepped-up prevention efforts, 45 million more people will become infected with HIV by 2010, according to the Global HIV Prevention Working Group. Yet 29 million of these people would never contract the virus if leaders ratcheted up preventive strategies–most crucially teaching the use of condoms.
In European countries, including the Netherlands and Sweden, the promotion of a variety of safe sex practices–abstinence, monogamy and condom use–has reduced teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. In Senegal and Uganda, it has cut the rate of new HIV infections in half. In all these countries and in others, national governments have supported such programs both rhetorically and financially.
The White House, however, wants to expand programs enacted under the Clinton Administration that tie federal funding of sex education to the promotion of abstinence-only curriculums. While the vast majority of US schools provide information about what HIV is and how it is transmitted, less than half give students information about what condoms are or how to use them, according to Centers for Disease Control surveys.
In a speech drowned out by angry protesters in Barcelona, US Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson touted the Administration’s $500 million drug initiative to prevent babies in Africa and the Caribbean from becoming infected with HIV during birth or through breastfeeding. He seemed confused when reporters later suggested that preventing women, girls and their partners from becoming infected in the first place might be a more productive strategy.
The evidence is clear: Campaigns that rely only on abstinence and drugs to protect babies from AIDS won’t slow the world pandemic. HIV prevention does work when it is part of reproductive health programs that recognize that sex is an integral component of human behavior.