'Catholic condom ban is helping Aids spread in Latin America' - UN

TEGUCIGALPA - The rapid spread in Latin America of the virus that causes Aids has been made worse by the Roman Catholic Church's stand against using condoms, a United Nations official said yesterday.

Approximately 1.7 million people across Latin America are infected with the HIV virus or full-blown Aids, and the epidemic is spreading swiftly with up to 410,000 new cases in 2006, up from as many as 320,000 new cases in 2004, according to UNAIDS.

Alberto Stella, the UNAIDS Coordinator for Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, said, "In Latin America the use of condoms has been demonised, but if they were used in every relation I guarantee the epidemic would be resolved in the region."

The Catholic Church has a great influence in Latin America, although over recent years there has been a great rise in evangelical churches.

However, the Catholic Church opposes all forms of contraception and instead promotes abstinence as a way to avoid spreading Aids.

"The fact young people start to be sexually active between 15 and 19 without sex education contributes to the spreading of the virus, as well as the fact that the evidence shows abstinence is not working," Stella told Reuters.

Latin America is home to nearly half the world's 1.1 billion Catholics, but the Church's position on contraception has often clashed with organisations fighting HIV and Aids.

Brazil, the region's largest Catholic nation, now regularly distributes free condoms to try and bring down HIV infection rates.