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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Sun Mar 5 14:21:16 2000
Date: Sat, 4 Mar 2000 15:52:54 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: POPULATION-TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Uproar Over Condoms-in-Schools
Article: 90451
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Copyright 2000 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.

Uproar Over Condoms-in-Schools Proposal

By Wesley Gibbings, IPS, 3 March 2000

PORT OF SPAIN, Mar 3 (IPS) - The country's Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Rawle Edwards, has sparked a major debate with the suggestion that condoms be made available to children at school.

Edwards had argued at a recent conference that young people were ignoring advice against pre-marital sex and were, to an increasing degree, having sex, becoming pregnant and contracting HIV/AIDS.

In fact, Edwards cited the most recent statistics here which show that the fastest growing community of HIV-sufferers was in the 13-19 age bracket. The male-to-female ratio in the 10-19 age group is 1:7.

"The Ministry of Health has allowed the sale of condoms in almost every shop and parlour in the country," he said, "and we have in fact encouraged that the sale of condoms stay."

He suggested that since condoms were already widely available to everyone, it would not be a bad thing to have them also available at school.

World Bank expert, Dr Fred Nunes, agreed saying that the British case, Gillick vs Gillick, had established the right of people of all ages to access contraceptive information without parental knowledge.

These suggestions have so angered religious leaders here that there has been almost universal condemnation from such circles.

Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church, Anthony Pantin, said the idea of the more widespread availability of condoms was a virtual admission that the country had given up hope in young people and their self- control. He criticised what he described as the country's "double- standards".

"They are selling sex in advertisements, Carnival costumes ... and still expect people not to want to have sex," the Archbishop said.

Even the head of the country's Medical Research Foundation (MRF), Professor Courtenay Bartholomew, has become involved saying: "Now it appears the condom is meant not only to sanitise sex but supposedly to sanctify it."

MRF is currently leading the controversial introduction of HIV vaccine testing.

"Whereas the faithful use of a condom may indeed lower one's risk of HIV infection, unfortunately, on the other hand, it promotes and increases promiscuity world-wide," Bartholomew said.

Bartholomew and others, however, appear to be fighting a losing battle. On the eve of annual Carnival celebrations, due this year on March 6 and 7, condom sales are reported to be up 100%.

There is also perennial concern about a rise in promiscuous sex at Carnival time and the country's Family Planning Association each year steps up its community education programmes to prevent the high number of unwanted pregnancies that follow the season.

Prime Minister Basdeo Panday joined the chorus this year warning that "the sobering reality is that a large number of such Carnival encounters are also casual encounters that are, in many cases, encounters of a most dangerous kind."

According to Dr Edwards, such "encounters" are increasingly involving young people.

"The knowledge is there," he said. "Young people know what it is, they know what causes it, but their behaviour has not changed."

Statistics provided by Tobago researcher, Dr Maria Dillon-Remy seemed to support the point.

She pointed to the fact that AIDS ranked as the second leading cause of death in the island - 18.3% in 1999. Of the 40 persons who died of AIDS last year, 55% were in the 15-44 age group. The current incidence rate for AIDS here is estimated at 210/100,000 persons.

A youth survey conducted in Tobago in 1994 found a range of startling misconceptions about the disease.

Just about 50% of the young people polled knew what the acronym AIDS stood for, 33.3% thought it could be spread through kissing; 15% thought that mosquito bites and unclean toilet seats could have led to the disease and 20% felt that the HIV virus could have been spread through tears and saliva.

Economist, Dr Karl Theodore, argued that much more resources ought to be pumped into research and information about the disease. "We cannot continue to apply minuscule resources to a problem which threatens our survival," he said.

At the current rate, the country's youth remain the most heavily affected. Edwards said the more widespread availability of condoms will help; spokespersons for the country's Hindus, Muslims and Christians however believe greater focus on the role of abstinence must be relied on to do the trick.

With condom sales up and the Carnival fever at its peak, Edwards' voice seems to have been the clearest and loudest.



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