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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 June, 2004, 21:13 GMT 22:13 UK
Condoms at carnival
Rio carnival
Condoms were given out at Rio carnival
At the Rio carnival in February this year, the Samba music played while huge spiky HIV viruses danced next to oversized condoms.

At least that's what it looked like - as the members of the Grande Rio Samba School wore special costumes to promote the use of condoms against AIDS.

Rio's famous samba school had made condoms a theme of their carnival procession. But they were also furious at a claim by a Cardinal in the Vatican, who said that condoms are unsafe because they have holes in them that could allow the HIV virus to pass through.

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, made the controversial claim on Panorama's "Sex and the Holy City" programme last year.

He was asked if it was the Vatican's position that the HIV virus can pass through a condom.

Significant risk

"Yes, yes, because this is something which the scientific community accepts, and doctors know what we are saying," he replied.

"You cannot talk about safe sex," he added, insisting that holes in condoms are a significant health risk..

But the comments sparked anger that the Church had undermined confidence in the device that millions trust for protection against the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The row raged all over the world, nowhere more so than largely Catholic Brazil, which has Latin America's highest AIDS rate.

Scientific proof

I would say that using a condom to stop AIDS is like trying to put out fire with petrol. Because it encourages the fire.
Bishop Cifuentes of Rio

After the Panorama programme, Cardinal Trujillo published a paper called Family Values versus Safe Sex. In it, he argued that there is scientific evidence that condoms couldn't be trusted - they let the HIV virus through and could lead to more AIDS deaths.

He argued condom promotion was not only ineffective against the AIDS epidemic - in fact it may cause more AIDS by encouraging people to be more promiscuous.

Moral arguments aside, Cardinal Trujillo calls on scientific research to support his 20-page document which has 87 footnotes.

"Leading people to think they are fully protected is to lead many to their death," the document says.

Cardinal Trujillo claims that condoms have a "ten to fifteen per cent inefficacy" - or failure rate - because tiny "AIDS viruses are much more able to pass through" condoms than the sperm.

There could be "millions of leaking condoms," he says.

In Brazil, up to 100,000 leaflets were printed backing up the Cardinal's argument.

Bishop Rafael Llano Cifuentes, the President of the Brazilian Bishops' Commission for Family and Life, was the author of these leaflets.

He told Panorama that condoms could have a failure rate of between 5 and 30%.

"The Church is like a mother," he said. "What mother would allow her son to go on a plane if she knew there was a 15% chance it would crash?

In his pamphlet the Bishop argued the AIDS virus can pass through condoms" as easily as a cat through a garage door."

Crime Against Humanity?

Statue of Christ on Sugarload mountain
The statue of Christ dominates the predominantly Catholic Rio
The Brazillian Government - in the form of the National HIV/AIDS Programme - is challenging Cardinal Trujillo's message.

It wrote a letter raising the question that the Church's message could be a "Crime Against Humanity" because it would lead millions not to use condoms and to contract the HIV virus.

"We are trying to shock, we are trying to provoke debate," Roberto Brant Campos, Deputy Director of the National HIV/AIDS Programme, told Panorama.

"Because we are trying to say - Please. Condoms are the unique weapon we have against AIDS, please don't discredit them amongst people."

In the skies above Ipanema beach in Rio, the commission has sponsored planes carrying banners to counteract Cardinal Trujillo's message. "Nothing gets through condoms," the banner reads. "Use it and trust it."

But across town, Bishop Cifuentes has a different view.

"Why do they say accuse us of a crime against humanity?" he asks.

"I would say that using a condom to stop AIDS is like trying to put out fire with petrol. Because it encourages the fire. So I believe something more profound is needed."

"Sexual relations between a man and a woman must be natural. Man likes the pleasure, but not the consequences."

Not a bad idea

At the Rio Carnival, protesters defied the Church by distributing condoms for free.

Panorama spoke to Professor Norman Hearst, a leading professor of Epidemiology at the University of California, who has studied what happens to all those condoms distributed free during carnival.

He told us, "We've done research on what happens to the condoms that get passed out in carnival in Brazil, and in fact many of them are never used."

"Now that doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad idea to pass out condoms at carnival if it gets people thinking about the risk of AIDS."

"It may be beneficial even if they don't use the condom."

"But I think that's the direction we need to be moving more in is thinking of condoms as part of a package of how you try to get people to do everything they can to reduce their risk of AIDS rather than the condom being the end all and be all."

Cardinal Trujillo argues that "abstinence and monogamy" are the best way to reduce the risk of HIV infection.

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