Vardhan puts foot in mouth with his take on condom use

Vardhan puts foot in mouth with his take on condom use

The foot-in-mouth disease, so typical of many politicians, has found a new victim in Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan.

The minister has landed in a soup for his remarks on upholding moral values in the fight against HIV/AIDS rather than using condoms.

Attacked by critics and ridiculed on social media platforms, Vardhan issued a clarification on Wednesday saying he was never against condom use to prevent the spread of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

“Through misleading headlines, an impression is sought to be created that I have misgivings about the efficacy of condoms or that I have a moral problem with condoms.

This is apart from the fact, as for the past two decades, I have been stressing the need for safe sex using a combination of condoms and discipline which is in line with the Abstinence-Be Faithful-Condom (ABC) line of UNAIDS,” Vardhan said.

The strategy, he explained, yielded great success in Uganda and has become part of the anti-AIDS campaigns in several countries.

The minister waded into a controversy when, in an interview to the New York Times, he said, “The thrust of the AIDS campaign should not only be on the use of condoms. This sends the wrong message that you can have any kind of illicit sexual relationship, but as long as you’re using a condom, it’s fine.”

Vardhan, a trained ENT specialist, said his statement on the supremacy of fidelity as an AIDS prevention measure was not only a piece of cultural advice, but also a scientific one.

“Any experienced NGO activist knows condoms sometimes break while being used. That is why government campaigns in India should focus on safe sex as a holistic concept, which includes highlighting the role of fidelity to single partners,” said Vardhan, who is touring the USA.

Old-timers in the health ministry recalled that Sushma Swaraj, health minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government, had stoked a similar controversy when she asked officials to pay more attention to the A and B (abstinence and be faithful) part of the strategy.

“She stopped condom promotion advertisements on Doordarshan arguing that they were hurting the sentiments of children,” JVR Prasad Rao, who was the health secretary under Swaraj, told Deccan Herald. Condom promotion, as part of a targeted intervention strategy for the high risk group vulnerable to HIV infection, was resurrected after the UPA government came to power.

“Condoms promise safe sex, but the safest sex is through faithfulness to one’s partner. Prevention is always better than cure,” Vardhan said.

A Chennai-based consultant on HIV/AIDS, Jaya Sreedhar, supported the minister, saying, “Vardhan did not say condom promotion would be stopped for the high risk group. But marital fidelity has to be emphasised as remaining faithful is a good public health strategy.”

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