Hearing a ghost: NPR, HIV-AIDS, ABC and God

Is it possible to spot a God-beat ghost while listening to the radio? While driving in rush-hour traffic on I-95? In this case, I think so.

I heard a fine National Public Radio report this morning by Brenda Wilson about an article in the journal Science covering the success of Uganda's programs to fight HIV-AIDS. To hear the story (if you have the right software), click here.

Everyone agrees that Uganda has been much more successful than similar African nations in cutting the spread of AIDS. But why is this the case?

The news is that Uganda is doing more than offering basic education programs that include the use of condoms. Uganda created its now famous ABC program -- which stands for "abstinence," "be faithful" or use a condom.

And the ghost? The NPR report emphasized that Uganda had taken advantage of the power of "social networks" to spread a message of warning that encouraged young people to abstain from sex and adults to limit the number of their sexual partners. These person-to-person contacts continued through "support clubs" for those who have had HIV-AIDS tests.

I was struck by that rather vague, ghost-like term "social networks."

Based on other information I have read about this issue, it seems that a high percentage of those "social networks" actually have names. They are called churches and mosques.

You would expect the religious element of this controversy to receive attention in reports by the cultural conservatives who work at the Family Research Council, Crosswalk.com and CatholicEducation.org. But the role of religious institutions was also highlighted in a United Nations report on the Uganda AIDS Control Programme, which included this material from its acting director, Dr. Joshua Musinguzi.

(The) ACP used drama groups, schools, churches, mosques and community-based organizations to help spread the word on AIDS. "Because of our openness about it, the challenge of AIDS became the concern of everybody. Churches, mosques, schools, the army, and even private companies initiated their own programmes to handle the problem," he said.

So what is the controversy? Part of the problem is that discussions of the Uganda program have become ensnared in American politics, where the battle lines have been drawn between the religious left and the right, between those who preach condoms and those who preach abstinence. The NPR report argues that the reality on the ground in Uganda is more complex than one or the other.

But, clearly, those "support networks" are doing a good job of spreading the word about abstinence.

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