by Ben Goldacre published in Ariane Sherine's book There's Probably No God: The Atheist's Guide to Christmas, with all contributor proceeds donated to the Terrance Higgins Trust, UK's leading HIV and sexual health charity.
I don’t mean to fill your Christmas with AIDS and diarrhoea, but there is something awe-inspiring about the power of ideas alone to do great good, and great evil. Diarrhoea will be our happy ending. AIDS will not.
There are the cheap shots. Africa is filled with miracle-cure peddlers: the Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, claims he can personally cure HIV, AIDS and asthma using magic and charms. The South African government fell for a cure built around nothing more than industrial solvent.
It’s all too easy to feel smug, and to forget that we have our own cultural idiosyncrasies. There’s compelling evidence, after all, that needle-exchange programmes reduce the spread of HIV, but the strategy has been rejected, time and again, in favour of ‘Just say no.’
And then there is the Church. In May 2009, as I write this chapter, the Congolese Bishops’ Conference have triumphantly announced that they ‘say no to condoms!’ This idiocy – they don’t deserve to be humoured – goes to the heart of the Catholic faith. In March, on his flight to Cameroon, Pope Benedict XVI explained that condoms worsen the AIDS problem, and he has been supported, in the past year alone, by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia, and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster. ‘It is quite ridiculous to go on about AIDS in Africa and condoms, and the Catholic Church,’ says O’Connor. ‘I talk to priests who say, “My diocese is flooded with condoms and there is more AIDS because of them.”’
Some have been imaginative in promoting their message. In 2007, Archbishop Francisco Chimoio of Mozambique announced that European condom manufacturers are deliberately infecting condoms with HIV to spread AIDS in Africa. It is estimated that one in six people in Mozambique is HIV positive. Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo of Colombia famously claimed that the HIV virus can pass through tiny holes in the rubber of condoms. ‘The condom is a cork,’ said Bishop Demetrio Fernandez of Spain, ‘and not always effective.’ In 2005 Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explained that scientific research has never proven that condoms ‘immunise against infection’. He’s right, I suppose. No wonder the Pope has proclaimed that ‘The most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/AIDS is in fact the Catholic Church and her institutions.’
Equally, there are heartbreaking tales of Westerners with a whiff of science going into the developing world. Matthias Rath, for example, is a German vitamin-pill salesman, who moved into South Africa five years ago, taking out full-page adverts in national newspapers: ‘The answer to the AIDS epidemic is here,’ he announced. The answer, of course, was a vitamin pill.
And he took his ideas to the right place. In South Africa alone, 300,000 people die every year from the virus; that’s one every two minutes. There are 1.2 million AIDS orphans, and more than half of all pregnant women are HIV positive. And South Africa was headed by President Thabo Mbeki, an ‘AIDS dissident’, as they prefer to be known. In the most crucial period of the AIDS epidemic, the South African government variously claimed that HIV was not the cause of AIDS, and that antiretroviral medications were not an effective treatment. They refused to roll out effective antiretroviral medication, they refused to accept gifts of money to give out ARV treatment, and they refused gifts of the pills themselves.
How does this happen? Perhaps AIDS is just too big to think about clearly. Twenty-five million people have died of it so far, three million in the past year, but these figures are so vast that it’s hard to mount an appropriate emotional response to them, if any.