oh, martin

I have to admit that I’m a little surprised you a) found and b) commented on my blog. I’m flattered, to be absolutely honest. I would say that I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but, with all due respect, I abhor the way you’ve gone about “educating” Makerere University students about HIV/AIDS, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t say why.

I agree with you on one thing: abstinence is the only guaranteed way to prevent the transmission of HIV.

Here’s the problem, Martin. People are having sex. Lots of people. Lots of people who have been taught that abstinence is the only way to protect themselves. But guess what? They’re still having sex, and I think it’s horrifically irresponsible of us to tell them that, since they denied themselves the first level of protection, we’re giving up on them.

Abstinence-only education has been proven (PDF) ineffective in reducing the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among young people. It’s simple, really: they’ve never been taught about safe sex.

You’d probably say that the only “safe” sex is no sex, but I don’t want to argue semantics. The transmission rate of HIV is seven times less when using a condom. That sounds a lot safer to me. Also, you might want to check out Columbia University professor Maria Wawer’s study (PDF) of 10,000 people in Rakai, where she found that the decrease in HIV prevalence was due to an increase in condom use, not in abstinence.

So let’s talk about Engabu. In 2004 some consumers notice (DOC) that these condoms smell bad. The government sends some to Sweden for testing, where they fail the “freedom from holes” and “smell” tests (I couldn’t find anything substantiating your claim of breakage). All Engabu condoms are recalled, but further testing shows that the rest pass the hole test, and only one batch fails the odor test.

Instead of re-releasing the good condoms alongside an aggressive confidence-building and education campaign, the government decides to hold on to them all, as well as instituting a policy that requires all imported condoms to undergo an additional round of quality testing before distribution and passing heavy taxes on all non-donated condoms. NGOs can’t distribute free condoms anymore, and costs rise to anywhere between 300% and 1000% (PDF) of what they were in 2003, effectively pricing most Ugandans out of safe sex.

On top of all this, Janet Museveni decides now is a good time to bash the overall effectiveness of condoms, regardless of brand. This is where you come in, Martin — you somehow get your hands on a bunch of recalled condoms and decide to torch them on campus, which I’m sure does wonders for public morale. Think back — are you absolutely sure you talked smack only on Engabu, or could any of your actions have been construed by impressionable young bystanders as a condemnation of all condoms as a whole?

Meanwhile, Uganda’s holding on to 34 million good condoms and citing distrust of the Engabu brand and of condoms in general as their reason for not distributing them. Health and development experts have cited a “concerted effort to undermine public confidence in condoms…led, for example, by the First Lady of Uganda, Janet Museveni…and by organizations such as the Makerere Community Church, led by Martin Ssempa” as the major cause of the recent increase in Uganda’s HIV rate.

So you tell me, Martin. Was setting fire to those condoms, spoiled or not, really the best course of action if you truly care about the young people of Uganda (two-thirds of whom are sexually active)? I know the Bush administration’s current policies — such as spending a whopping 56% of their funds for prevention of sexual transmission of HIV in Uganda on abstinence-only education — make what you do pretty attractive financially, but since PEPFAR started throwing money around here, the HIV rate’s been going up.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?