Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Uganda says no condom crisis but abstinence is best

By Frank Nyakairu

KAMPALA, Aug 30 (Reuters) - Uganda on Tuesday dismissed U.N. claims that an emphasis on U.S.-promoted abstinence-only programs to fight HIV/AIDS had created a "condom crisis".

Stephen Lewis, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, said on Monday that Christian ideology was driving Washington's AIDS assistance program known as PEPFAR with disastrous results such as a Ugandan condom shortage.

Uganda's junior health minister Mike Mukula also denied reported claims by activists in Uganda and the United States that the emphasis on abstinence-only programs had left his country in the grip of a condom shortage so severe that men are using garbage bags in an effort to protect themselves.

"That is not true at all. Our policy is to maintain the ABC (Abstinence, Be Faithful and use Condoms) policy which actually helped Uganda to reduce the AIDS prevalence rates," Mukula said in a telephone interview. "The three strategies have always carried the same weight."

Uganda had been praised for cutting HIV infection rates to around 6 percent today from 30 percent in the early 1990s, a rare success story in Africa's battle against the disease.

But President Yoweri Museveni's government has been criticised for what activists say is a reduction in the number of free condoms available due to pressure from Washington through the PEPFAR programme.

As part of President George W. Bush's global AIDS plan, the U.S. government has already budgeted about $8 million this year for abstinence-only projects in Uganda, human rights groups say.

"There is no question in my mind that the condom crisis in Uganda is being driven and exacerbated by PEPFAR and by the extreme policies that the administration in the U.S. is now pursuing in the emphasis on abstinence," Lewis told journalists on a teleconference on Monday.

Mukula said the government was "aware that there are people who will have to use condoms like prostitutes, discontent couples and sexually active teenagers."

Uganda plans to provide condom vending machines in the capital Kampala, where condom use had increased from 33 percent in 1999 to 76 per cent in 2002, Mukula said.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has said Museveni's wife Janet -- a strong supporter of abstinence who hosted several hundred virgins last year -- and charities close to her had received U.S. funds.

Museveni angered AIDS campaigners when he said in July 2004 that abstinence and faithful relationships should come before condom use.