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John Paul’s 1990 speech ‘sentenced millions to die’

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From TimesOnline

In September 1990, John Paul II gave a speech in northern Tanzania that many believe set the tone for the Aids crisis in Africa


On a balmy late afternoon in September 1990, John Paul II visited the small town of Mwanza, in northern Tanzania, and gave a speech that many believe set the tone for the Aids crisis in Africa.

Battered by conflicts and poverty, those inside the packed church and the huge crowds gathered outside hung on to every word. In particular, the Pope could give answers to this strange “slimming” disease that had seemingly come from nowhere to destroy entire communities. Some in the villages even whispered that it came from God himself as a punishment for past sins.

Tanzania, Uganda and the other countries surrounding Lake Victoria were then at the epicentre of HIV/ Aids, which was beginning its race down Africa’s highways to devastate every corner of the continent. Some nearby villages consisted only of the very old and very young while rows and rows of wooden crosses marked the graves of others.

The Pope was unequivocal. He told his audience that condoms, then internationally accepted as the only real way to curtail the spread of the disease, especially in the developing world, were a sin in any circumstances. He lauded family values and praised fidelity and abstinence as the only true ways to combat the disease – seemingly ignorant of many traditional practices such as wives marrying the brothers of deceased husbands, a form of security in countries with no social services.

Aids activists, including many local African Catholics, were appalled. In that one afternoon, they said, the Vatican destroyed more than a decade of patient campaigning. Progress had been painfully slow but awareness campaigns – with condom use the crucial component – were showing signs of taking effect. Age-old customs and habits were changing.

For many, the Pope that day sentenced millions of Africans to death. Unabashed, he repeated the same message time and again as he moved on to neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi, countries then suffering an even higher HIV infection rate.

“Thabo Mbeki [the former South African President] was pilloried for being an Aids denialist, but the Pope did much more damage and more or less got away with it,” said Godfrey Mubyazi, a Tanzanian friend who accompanied The Times on that day.

After the visit the pandemic gathered pace. By 2010, it is now estimated, there will be 50 million orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa, 18 million of whose parents will have died from Aids or Aids-related illnesses.

Today more than 28 per cent of African children have lost one or both parents to Aids. In 1990, at the time of the Pope’s visit to Tanzania, the figure was 2 per cent. Since the disease was first identified in the early Eighties, 22 million people have died and 40 million are now HIV-infected – the vast majority in Africa.

Today, it is virtually impossible to find anyone in Africa who has not been affected in some way by the disease. Most notably, Nelson Mandela’s son Makgatho succumbed to the virus in 2005. In communities from Lesotho to Liberia, people with wasted, emaciated bodies are waiting to die. Deprived of medical support, they are likely to suffer lonely, painful deaths.
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4 Responses to “John Paul’s 1990 speech ‘sentenced millions to die’”

  1. You should know that the HIV virus is so small that it could pass through the condoms’ pores. What the Pope said is true, abstinence is the only way to eradicate this disease.

    An HIV particle is around 100-150 billionths of a metre in diameter. That’s about the same as:

    * 0.1 microns
    * 4 millionths of an inch
    * one twentieth of the length of an E. coli bacterium
    * one seventieth of the diameter of a human CD4+ white blood cell.

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