Sunday March 24 2013

Kenyan religious leaders up in arms over condom advert

By Tom Mosoba

Nairobi: The National Aids Control Council (NACC) has convened an impromptu board meeting on Monday to address raging controversy generated by a controversial condom use advertisement on national television.

NACC director Alloys Orago says the board has been summoned to respond to the heat generated by opposition to “Weka Condom Mpangoni”, a public campaign encouraging condom use among women in sexual relationships outside marriage.

Population Service International, the sponsors, suspended airing of the advert on March 19 amid mounting protests from a cross-section of religious leaders. Debate for and against the condom campaign is still raging in the social media.

In an interview with the Sunday Nation, Prof Orago said the NACC meeting will consider different views and come up with a common position on how to promote condom use as a means of preventing HIV infections. The advert was informed by research that shows that married couples are three times more likely to be infected with HIV compared to prostitutes.

Offending message
“We have temporarily pulled the advert, and Monday’s meeting will help us understand the offending messages and inform the campaigners on how to proceed,” said Prof Orago.

But he said health authorities were taken aback by the stiff opposition, including from religious leaders who have a representative on the NACC Board.

According to the NACC chief, the advert was created following research that showed new HIV/Aids infections are steadily rising among married couples and those with steady sexual partners. Women, long considered a low risk group, comprise the highest number of those being infected while in apparently stable unions.

“We have scientific findings to prove this, and that is why this particular advert was developed to encourage them to use condoms in their sexual liaisons. We did not just move from the blue, and we cannot win the war against Aids by not targeting both sexes,” Prof Orago said.

National Aids and STI Control Programme head Peter Cherutich said the public was over-reacting and appealed for support and understanding from religious leaders.

“It is now apparent that some women in seemingly stable marriages do cheat on their partners, and the nation can no longer continue to bury its head in the sand,” he said in an earlier interview with NTV.

A new Aids epidemic status report for Kenya gives grim statistics which the authorities say informed the creation of the condom campaign.

The Kenya AIDS epidemic UPDATE 2012 report is described as the first-ever comprehensive update of the HIV and Aids epidemic in the country over the last decade. While steady progress has been made in scaling back effects of the epidemic, the analysis paints a worrying trend in infections.

The findings warn that more than 44.1 per cent of all new HIV infections are occurring in stable or long-term relationships including marriages.

Sixty five per cent of recent infections occurred among women under 35 years while 40.1 per cent for men aged between 35-44 years were victims. The publication said 104,137 Kenyans were infected in 2011.

Surprisingly, married couples are three times more likely to become infected than prostitutes who accounted for only 14.05 per cent of new infections. They are followed closely at 20.28 per cent by those engaging in casual sex like one-night stands.

Prison infections stand at 15.23 per cent, injecting drug use at 3.83 per cent while health facility-related infections are the lowest at 2.52 per cent.

It is further estimated that 45 per cent of married people who are HIV positive have partners who are not currently infected, therefore putting their discordance at great risk.

The main reasons given for high HIV prevalence rates in these types of relationships include having more than one sexual partner and engaging in unprotected sex with a person of unknown HIV status.

(The Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey for 2009 showed about 80 per cent of all persons infected with HIV do not know their status). As of December 2011, 1.6 million people in Kenya were living with HIV.

Other reasons include low condom use in multiple and concurrent sexual partnerships, couples in marriage consider themselves to be at low risk for HIV infection while some are still ignorant of the risks that their partner’s sexual history puts them in or the sexual networks created through relationships on the side.

The controversial advert is seen as part of a government strategy to adopt “energetic, courageous efforts to address the social determinants of vulnerability”.

But the advert has drawn the ire of religious leaders who described it as immoral and misleading. Bishop Julius Kalu of the Anglican Church of Kenya, Mombasa Diocese, and the Council of Imams and Preachers of Kenya Secretary Sheikh Mohammed Khalifa called for its removal saying by depicting women as cheaters, it was encouraging unfaithfulness and casual sex among married Kenyans.

Sodom and Gomorrah
“The advert depicts this nation as a Sodom and Gomorrah and not one that values the institution of marriage and family,” said Sheikh Khalifa.

Bishop Kalu said: “There are better ways of passing useful information to society…but this one has certainly failed and openly propagates immorality.”

In the social media, some commentators said the advert was a gimmick to shore up condom sales, which currently stand at 15 million pieces a year. Others called for a sober debate on the need for Kenyans to be God-fearing, adopt good morals and live healthier lives.

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com

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