No sexual intercourse for a month is the message that two scientists leading the fight against HIV transmission have sent to African leaders. In a study published last April in the Southern African Journal of HIV Medicine, Alan Whiteside and Justin Parkhurst observed that Muslim males, obliged to abstain from intimate relations during the month of Ramadan, were protected from HIV infections. But this study comes in the heels of another which advocates for comprehensive sexual education instead of abstinence programs.
Total abstinence is a message that falls in line with the demands of almost all religious leaders, but “abstinence is not a prevention tool per se as it is only a partial or total suppression of sexual relations,” a health professional at the Global Fund in Geneva tells Afrik-News.
But Alan Whiteside and Justin Parkhurst, two epidemiologists specialized in AIDS research, would beg to differ from recent scientific research and have called upon African leaders to launch a “No sex” campaign for a month.
In a study published last April in the Southern African Journal of HIV Medicine, the two observed that newly infected individuals (less than six months) were responsible for 10-45% of new HIV cases. The period of abstinence therefore could reduce the risk of contamination.
“This could be a good method in certain communities which are seriously affected. Such an initiative would offer these countries a short-term solution—inexpensive and easy to manage, while avoiding further stigmatization,” explains Alan Whiteside of the University of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa.
Muslims protected from HIV?
For their research, the scientists probed into the sexual practices of some religious communities. Whiteside reveals that Muslim men are protected from HIV during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan for three main reasons. It is forbidden to have sexual relations during the day, to commit adultery, sodomy or to consume alcohol.
This observation is corroborated by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, UNAIDS, which shows that predominantly Muslim countries have a HIV prevalence of 0.2%.
In Swaziland, which has the highest HIV infection rate in the world (20.6%), the message of abstinence has been well received. “We see this sort of initiative as a means of ending the cycle [of infection]. We believe that the best time would be in October or November,” says Derek von Wissell, the director of the National Help Center of Swaziland, in an article published on July 4th on the Guardian website.
“In hyper-endemic countries, decision-makers, people and politicians are open to new ideas in the fight against this epidemic,” assert Whiteside and Parkhurst while refusing that their abstinence method be deformed by the Church.
But as Pamela Kohler points out in a 2008 report that appeared in the Journal of Adolescent Health, “Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education …”: “In comparing abstinence-only programs with comprehensive sex education, comprehensive sex education was associated with a 50% lower risk of teen pregnancy…” considering that the pregnant teens were open to all risks, including HIV infections.
“Even if abstinence has helped some communities to reduce HIV infections, we cannot afford to abandon comprehensive sex education as abstinence is not a prevention tool per se,” says the Global Fund health professional who declined to be named. Following Pamela Kohler’s report, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States analyzes that “abstinence-only… programs are not effective in changing young people’s sexual behavior or preventing negative outcomes”.