'The Pope's comments are a milestone in HIV fight'

Winnie Ssanyu Sseruma, a campaigner who has the virus herself, on how a new stance on condoms will benefit Africa
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The Independent Online

I was raised a Catholic and, even if my faith has lapsed, I still am one. But I have also been HIV positive for 23 years, and every day I am involved in the fight against the spread of the virus.

When I was asked earlier this year to make a short film for Channel 4 about what I would say to the Pope if I had an audience with him, the answer was easy: I said I would like to see the Pope change his attitudes towards condoms, from being completely against them and saying that they are part of the problem to accepting that when it comes to the sexual transmission of HIV, they are the best prevention tool we have.

He has not quite gone that far. But his recent comments, which at least suggest that there are some circumstances in which the use of condoms is the lesser evil, are an encouraging sign.

And they open a way forward. The evidence has been very clear for many years now that when condoms are used correctly and consistently they are able to significantly reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted infections including HIV.

While there is no doubt that the Pope could go a lot further in endorsing all proven methods of preventing the spread of HIV, the impact of his statement cannot be underestimated. I and my colleagues at Christian Aid believe firmly in the important role the world's faith leaders have to play in responding to the pandemic.

Again and again in my years working to educate people about HIV, we have come up against the obstacles that faith can put in our place. I remember a trip to Zambia, where I was told by a Malawian group at a conference on the subject that condoms were not used by good Catholics, that they promote promiscuity and that they would not want to be seen by anyone buying them – or even picking them up for free.

And I remember a conference in Uganda earlier this year, bringing together local leaders from a variety of faiths for the first event of its kind. Uganda's minister of health got up and spoke about the importance of condoms in HIV prevention, and told us that his government would continue to provide them. There seemed to be reason for optimism.

Then the Catholic leader stood up, and made it quite clear that artificial contraception was not allowed in the Catholic faith, and that there would be no compromise on the issue. I felt like a deflated balloon.

So the Pope's words are a heartening acknowledgement of the facts about HIV. When the Pope last visited Africa, he caused uproar by saying that condoms were not a solution to the problem of HIV, but part of the problem, and his remarks almost overshadowed his entire visit; now, though, I wonder whether seeing first-hand the devastating effects that HIV can have on communities was the trigger that prompted this change.

For NGOs linked with the Catholic Church it will also make work so much easier. They have long struggled to balance the rigidity of the information from the Church leadership and the reality on the ground.

The Reverend Christo Greyling, the director of HIV and infectious diseases at World Vision International, said: "I am so thankful for the clarifying messages from the Pope. This is one of the most helpful prevention messages to come forth in the past years. It is something we have been hoping for, for such a long time – since so many people, Catholics and others, are looking towards the Pope for leadership."

The fight against HIV will still face huge challenges. We have to keep pushing the leadership of the Catholic Church to go even further and start addressing HIV in their churches – not just within their congregations but among their priests. We continue to hear of priests who are dying of HIV-related illnesses in hospitals around the world, in silence, in denial and without the treatment and support they desperately need.

And yet there are still religious leaders in developing countries who dispute the facts – which are unanswerable. Since Aids was identified in the early 1980s, more than 60 million people have been infected with HIV worldwide and nearly 30 million have died of Aids-related illnesses.

The recent statistics show that at the end of 2009 there were 33.3 million people in the world living with HIV, the majority of them living in Africa and having acquired their infection mainly through heterosexual transmission. Although the figure is slightly down from the previous year, indicating that the epidemic maybe levelling off, there is still a situation whereby new infections are outpacing people going on to treatment by two to one.

Clearly the need for accurate information on prevention is as crucial as ever. All too often HIV has been linked to sinful behaviour, and this approach tends only to hide the issue and increase its stigmatisation. Organisations like Christian Aid will continue to insist that HIV is not a moral issue: it is a virus.