The Catholic Church in Kenya will hold a national conference on AIDS this June as it intensifies efforts to contain a disease that has become one of the biggest health challenges in Africa. The conference, to be held in Nairobi, the capital, is organized by the Kenya Catholic AIDS Taskforce and will map ways of making the Church's intervention more effective.

According to UNAIDS, the United Nations' office that monitors the pandemic, some 22 million Africans are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, constituting 67 percent of all HIV-positive people globally. About 74 percent of all AIDS-related deaths in 2007 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Kenya, about 7 percent of adults 15-49 years old are infected with HIV, and rates in women are nearly double the rates in men. It is estimated that there are about 150,000 AIDS deaths per year, twice the rate of 1998. Since 1984, at least 1.5 million people have died from AIDS in Kenya, according to health ministry estimates.

The Church in Africa has played a key role in tackling the pandemic with Catholic institutions and programs providing about one-fourth of all health care to AIDS victims. In Kenya, most of the Catholic Church's 44 major hospitals offer subsidized or free anti-retroviral drugs. About 100 Health Units, including health centers, offer services in the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV among other services.

Face of AIDS

"As a Church, we need to learn better ways of rolling out programs even faster to all who need our assistance. We need to challenge ourselves to build our capacities to provide more excellent services," said Father Philip Sulumeti, chairman of the Catholic Health Commission. "We need to rededicate ourselves to provide services with ever greater compassion. We have come a long way, but we need to go even further."

It was a Catholic priest, Father Angelo D'Agostino, a native of Washington, D.C., who helped give AIDS a human face in Kenya. In 1992, he started Nyumbani, a children's home exclusively for AIDS orphans at a time when the disease was highly stigmatized and orphans were often neglected. He took in HIV-positive children who had been abandoned by their parents or brought to the home by social workers.

His work was, however, not easy. Government schools refused to admit the children because of their HIV status, and Father D'Agostino had to go to court to compel the schools to admit them. He won the case in 2004, which prompted the government to outlaw discrimination against HIV-infected children in school admission policies.

The Church has been supporting the rollout of life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs (ARV), especially to vulnerable groups who cannot afford them. Together with the government, which has been generously funding the ARV subsidy program, the number of AIDS patients taking the drugs has continued to increase. In 2007, President Mwai Kibaki announced that public hospitals would no longer charge HIV/AIDS patients for anti-retroviral drugs.

Kenya's AIDS prevalence rate dropped from 5.9 percent in 2005 to 5.1 percent in 2007 mainly due to the increased rollout of anti-retroviral drugs, according to the National AIDS Control Council. NACC said the growing use of life-prolonging therapy averted around 57,000 deaths in 2006.

The council also reported a drop in new infections from 60,000 in 2005 to 55,000 in 2007, but stressed that most new infections were occurring among young people.

As of June 2007, around a million Africans were receiving anti-retroviral drugs, less than a quarter of the estimated 4.6 million people in need of the drugs on the continent.

But even as the Church plays a key role in the fight against the disease, this fight has been hampered by a conflict between the Church, the government and civil society over whether condoms should be promoted as an intervention measure.

'Appalling tragedy'

While asserting that the Catholic Church can help bring answers to the continent's chronic problems, including AIDS, during his first trip to Africa last month, Pope Benedict XVI said condom distribution only makes the problem worse.

"One cannot overcome the problem with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem," the pope told reporters travelling with him.

What the Church teaches, Pope Benedict said, is "humanization of sexuality" and sexual responsibility on the one hand, and a willingness to be present with those who are suffering, on the other hand.

He pointed to the many Church programs currently helping AIDS victims and said the Church's contribution had led to real and visible progress.

The Church has been fighting the disease using this approach, which was also the position of the late Pope John Paul II, who once issued a message urging the world to help Africa fight the scourge, observing: "Humanity can not close its eyes in the face of so appalling a tragedy."

During a 2003 plenary assembly of the bishops' conferences of Africa and Madagascar, the African bishops adopted a common position to fight the disease without promoting condom use. They came up with a program of action that included waging a coordinated effort at the continental level in the struggle against the pandemic.

"We commit ourselves to making available our Church's resources, be they educational and health care institutions or social services," a statement issued by the conference said.

Shortly thereafter, Britain's then-international development secretary, Clare Short, took a swipe at the Catholic Church for its opposition to condom use in Africa.

"The Catholic Church is stuck and wrong on these questions," she said.

But not all governments have promoted the use of condoms.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, leader of a country that has done better than any other on the continent in containing infection rates, has advocated for years for sexual abstinence as the best method to tame the spread of the disease. He once lashed out at the West for promoting condom use in Africa "for selfish gains."

As the Church battles HIV/AIDS, factors that continue to pose challenges to the struggle are stigmatization, which affects home-based care, socio-cultural issues such as widow inheritance, and poverty that leads young girls and some adult women to engage in commercial sex.

David Karanja writes from Nairobi.