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SBC President Exaggerates Credit for Reducing AIDS in Uganda

CNN’s Campbell Brown correctly identified “True Love Waits” as an abstinence program in Sunday’s Compassion Forum with the Democratic presidential candidates focusing on faith issues. But she failed to challenge the Southern Baptist Convention president’s exaggerated claim crediting the faith-based program with reducing the rate of HIV/AIDS in Uganda.

SBC President Frank Page asked Sen. Barack Obama a question about faith-based approaches to combating AIDS in Africa during the Faith in Public Life forum at Messiah College. Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., said True Love Waits, a ministry launched by LifeWay Christian Resources in 1994, “has been credited by the government of Uganda [with] lowering the AIDS infection rate there dramatically from 30 percent to 6 percent.”

True Love Waits in a program in which teenagers sign pledge cards to remain sexually abstinent until they marry.

It is true that True Love Waits has a bully pulpit in Uganda, the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to register a drop in the adult national prevalence of HIV. President Yoweri Museveni and his wife, Janet, have promoted True Love Waits in speeches and ad campaigns for a decade and a half.

Uganda’s first couple has worked closely with faith-based organizations including the SBC International Mission Board, which has used True Love Waits in mission strategy for many years. Uganda’s first lady is a committed Christian and a one-time “prayer partner” with former IMB missionary Sharon Pumpelly.

In a 2004 Baptist Press story, Pumpelly’s husband said Janet Museveni was especially helpful in persuading Uganda’s minister of education to allow True Love Waits material into the schools.

“Religious organizations played a major role in prevention [of HIV/AIDS] and had a strong influence,” Museveni said in accepting an award for promoting abstinence over “safe-sex” approaches to fighting AIDS. “When we adopted the True Love Waits slogan, we found that the most important thing was focusing on our spiritual foundation and values.”

But the Baptist True Love Waits effort is only one effort among many to reduce AIDS in Uganda. While “Abstinence Only” is the motto of Uganda’s True Love Waits effort, other programs advocate the “ABC Model” of AIDS prevention. The “A” stands for abstaining from sex or delaying the onset of sexual behavior, “B” stands for being faithful or reducing the number of sexual partners and “C” is for correct and consistent use of condoms.

While Religious Right and family planning organizations like Planned Parenthood go back and forth arguing whether abstinence only or condom distribution is more effective, advocates of ABC say no one approach fits every situation.

Edward Green, a senior research scientist with the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, who once advocated the use of condoms and clean needles to prevent the spread of AIDS, now says for youth, the first priority should be to encourage abstinence or delay the onset of sexual activity. For adults, Green said at a conference in 2005, the first priority should be to promote mutual fidelity with an uninfected partner. For people at high risk of exposure to HIV, the first priority should be to promote consistent condom use.

Green said Uganda provides the clearest case study of a successful ABC approach. He said HIV prevalence peaked in Uganda at 15 percent in 1991 and fell to 5 percent by 2001. The Ugandan government sometimes reports that prevalence peaked at 30 percent nationally in 1990, but Green said that is true only for its capital city, Kampala, and perhaps one rural district of Uganda. During the decline, Green said, both abstinence among youth and condom use increased moderately, but fidelity and reduction in the number of sexual partners increased dramatically.

The most recent report on the AIDS epidemic by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS says while HIV infection has declined in Uganda, it is still a serious epidemic. Infection levels are highest among women–7.5 percent compared to 5 percent for men–and urban residents–10 percent compared to 5.7 percent for rural residents.

UNAIDS says HIV prevalence started to decrease in Uganda in 1992–two years before the launch of True Love Waits–alongside evidence of significant behavioral change aimed at inhibiting its spread. The trend stabilized in the early 2000s. With a population growing as rapidly as in Uganda, a stable incidence rate means that increasing numbers of people are acquiring HIV each year.

The report notes with alarm an apparent recent increase in riskier sexual activity. National surveys show that higher-risk sex reported by women increased from 12 percent in 1995 to 16 percent in 2006. Among men the rate increased from 29 percent in 1995 and 28 percent in 2000 to 37 percent in 2004-5 and 36 percent in 2006. In the same surveys, condom use during sex with these partners declined among women.

“There is an urgent need to revive and adapt the kind of prevention efforts that helped bring Uganda’s HIV epidemic under control in the 1990s,” the report concludes.

In the United States, the political stakes over AIDS policy in Africa are high. In 2003 President Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Pledging $15 billion over five years, the plan is the largest commitment ever by any nation for an international health initiative dedicated to a single disease. In his response to Page’s question, Obama said he viewed PEPFAR as “one of the success stories” of the Bush administration.

Religious conservatives hope Bush’s success in promoting faith-based initiatives in the U.S. will make other countries more open to working with religious groups and that Uganda’s success will open the door to faith-based prevention programs across southern Africa. President Bush applauded the True Love Waits program when he spoke via satellite to the SBC’s annual convention in June.

Last year True Love Waits International launched an initiative to expand its abstinence-until-marriage message throughout Africa. LifeWay Christian Resources donated $950,000 to begin expanding True Love Waits in six African countries as part of “A Defining Moment,” a $29 million philanthropic campaign launched in 2005 to address spiritual needs by funding specific creative ministry projects around the world.

Sharon Pumpelly, the former IMB missionary who with her husband introduced True Love Waits to Uganda in 1994, serves as lead consultant for True Love Waits International.

On the same day True Love Waits held its first national event in the U.S. in July 1994, Larry and Sharon Pumpelly organized a parade in downtown Kampala, Uganda–complete with banners and police escort–to introduce the program to a continent that was being devastated by AIDS. Uganda’s first lady spoke at the parade.

Sharon Pumpelly said the transformation in Uganda is the work of God.

“What was fascinating is that by faith, we told Ugandan youth that they had the power to change the history of their country, that God would bless their nation when its individual members chose to follow His ways,” she told Baptist Press in 2005. “Just like there are different generations that can tell you something different about their history, their generation could say, ‘We turned Uganda around on AIDS.'”

“And God did it!” she said “That’s what was fun. God did it. I loved talking to the teenagers. I just loved it. But our fun was watching what God was doing, that He initiated it, He put the program together, He touched the hearts and He turned people to Himself. That was our joy.”

In another BP story Pumpelly said money alone won’t solve the AIDS crisis. The only hope, she said, is for Christians to rise up with counseling, education and the message of salvation in Jesus Christ.

“Promiscuity is a way of life in some cultures,” Pumpelly said. “Teaching about God’s perfect plan can save the next generation from this disease, while at the same time help them understand and accept God’s love and forgiveness.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.