YAOUNDE The Vatican on Wednesday defended Pope Benedict's opposition to the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS as activists, doctors and politicians criticized it as unrealistic, unscientific and dangerous.
Benedict, arriving in Africa, said on Tuesday that condoms "increase the problem" of AIDS. The comment, made to reporters aboard his plane, caused a worldwide firestorm of criticism.
"My reaction is that this represents a major step backwards in terms of global health education, is entirely counter-productive, and is likely to lead to increases in HIV infection in Africa and elsewhere," said Prof Quentin Sattentau, Professor of Immunology at Britain's Oxford University.
"There is a large body of published evidence demonstrating that condom use reduces the risk of acquiring HIV infection, but does not lead to increased sexual activity," he said.
The Church teaches that fidelity within heterosexual marriage and abstinence are the best ways to stop AIDS.
Asked about the criticism, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope was "maintaining the position of his predecessors."
The Vatican also says condoms can also lead to risky behavior but many contest that view.
Kevin De Cock, director of the World Health Organization's HIV/AIDS department, said there is no scientific evidence showing that condom use spurs people to take more sexual risks.
"The guidance we give is that condoms are highly (effective) to prevent the transmission of HIV if they are used correctly and consistently," he said in a telephone interview.
He said abstinence and reducing the number of partners were also needed and praised faith-based groups, noting that many Catholic charities provide treatment for people with the virus in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world.
HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, infects 33 million people globally and has killed 25 million.
AIDS ACTIVISTS CRITICAL
"Anything that reduces AIDS on a depressed continent like Africa should be welcomed, said Adeleke Agbola, a lawyer who is national coordinator for the Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria (NEPWHAN).
"The pope saying they are not good is like someone saying traveling by air is not 100 percent safe, so we should not fly," said Matemilola, a medical doctor who has been living with HIV/AIDS for more than a decade.
A New York Times editorial said the pope "deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings" about condoms.
France expressed "very strong concern."
"While it is not up to us to pass a judgment on the doctrines of the Church, we consider that such remarks put in danger public health policy and imperative needs regarding the protection of human life," a foreign ministry spokesman said.
Belgian Health Minister Laurette Onkelinx said the pope's comments "... reflect a dangerous doctrinaire vision. His declarations could demolish years of prevention and education and endanger many human lives."
There were also some signs of dissent within the Church.
"Anyone who has AIDS and is sexually active, anyone who seeks multiple partners, must protect others and themselves," said Hans-Jochen Jaschke, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Hamburg in the pope's native Germany.
"So, no taboo on the condom issue, but also no myths and trivialization as if these put the world in order. Condoms can protect, but men often reject them," the bishop added.
(Additional reporting by Michael Kahn in London, David Lewis in Yaounde, Tom Heneghan in Paris, Phil Stewart in Rome, Paul Carrel in Berlin, and Tume Ahemba and Kingsley Igwe in Lagos)