If I learned one thing from my very brief time in seminary, it was to be wary of my preconceived notions.

It's a lesson I learned in a New Testament Class, where the professor noted that most of us have an interpretive grid or way of seeing that frames how we see the Bible. The problem comes when the grid distorts our view—-making us see things that aren’t there and miss what is there.

Journalists can face the same problem. Sometimes our preconceptions or framework can make us miss things.

For example, there is a grid that looks at the actions of the Bush administration and concludes that this White House values ideology over factual, scientific data. (That has certainly been the case when it comes to the environment, where the President seems to rely on, as his father might have put it, “Voodoo scientists.”)

But that always the case?

Take this story from the World AIDS Conference in Thailand, about a debate over whether the CNN method, (Condoms Needles, Negotiation) is better at fighting AIDS than the ABC model (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Use a Condom)developed in Uganda.

Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda, angered many at the conference by saying the ABC method was superior.

On the second day of the 15th International AIDS conference, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni bought up the issue by saying abstinence was the best way to stop the deadly virus.

"I look at condoms as an improvisation, not a solution," Museveni told delegates in Bangkok.

Instead, he called for "optimal relationships based on love and trust instead of institutionalized mistrust which is what the condom is all about."

The Reuters report quoted Congresswoman Barbara Lee, "who accused the Bush administration of using ideology, not science, to dictate policy."

And here's how Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, described ABC in a preview of the conference that was critical of US policy.

"ABC is insufficient when it comes to women in general. A: Rape doesn't respect abstinence; B: their partners are supposed to be but that is increasingly not occurring; and C: condoms are generally in the control of men. So when it comes to women and AIDS, let's understand the insufficiency of A, B and C," she said.

This take has become the typical framework for interpreting this story--that ABC is a US driven policy, it's unrealistic, and it's not scientifically valid.

Here's the lead from the AP story on the controversy:

President Bush's policy of fighting AIDS by promoting abstinence ran into strong opposition Monday from scientists, activists and policy-makers who touted condoms as a trusted weapon in the fight against AIDS.

But this grid is flawed. The ABC method has certainly been championed by the US but it was developed by Ugandans, with little help or money from the West. And it has worked for Uganda, where in the early 90s, the HIV infection rate was 21 percent. It's now about 6 percent, making Uganda the only Africa nation to make any headway in fighting AIDS.

Dr. Edward Green, a senior researcher at Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, has become one of leading proponents of the ABC model. Green--who is not religious or conservative or a Republican--testified for the Senate in favor of ABC back in 2003, and you can read his comments here.
Basically, he said, the Ugandans, who had very little money to fight AIDS, and no hopes of creating a medical vaccine against the disease, created a "social vaccine" instead--getting young people to delay sex, encouraging people to stay faithful, and having people at high risk--prostitutes, soldiers away from home, long distance truck drivers--use condoms.

Here's how he described the program in a piece for the Harvard School of Public Health.

Uganda has experienced the greatest decline of HIV infection of any country. Its home-grown prevention program was based largely on behavioral change. Reacting to Western advice, President Museveni said in 1990, “Just as we were offered the ‘magic bullet’ in the early 1940s, we are now being offered the condom for ‘safe sex.’ We are being told that only a thin piece of rubber stands between us and the death of our continent. I feel that condoms have a role to play as a means of protection, especially in couples who are HIV-positive, but they cannot become the main means of stemming the tide of AIDS.<

Green has become a proponent of ABC because it worked, and because Western run prevention programs, which are based on condoms as the primary prevention tool--have failed miserably in Africa.

Paul Farmer, a renowned public health specialist at Harvard has some questions about ABC and whether it's the right paradigm for the rest of the world. But he agrees with Green's assessment of AIDS prevention efforts.

Green begins his overview of the problem by noting, “Evidence is mounting that the global model of AIDS prevention, designed by Western experts, has been largely ineffective in Africa.” It would be hard to argue with him on this score as thousands of new infections accrue each week. With millions of new infections occurring each year, AIDS prevention is by and large a failure, especially on the world’s most heavily burdened continent, which is also, not coincidentally, the globe’s poorest.

If Green and Farmer are right--then isn't it time for some journalists to ask, like Museveni, whether only a thin piece of rubber stands between us and the death of millions of people in the continent of Africa. Or in Asia, where AIDS cases are rising dramatically?

But they don't, I fear, because their preconceptions won't them.

For example, that first Reuters piece contains this section, quoting a representative from Planned Parenthood.

Uganda's success has been twisted by the U.S. government in an effort to keep the support of religious conservatives, said Steven Sinding, director general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. . . .

"Millions of people around the world have been persuaded by the arguments of the U.S. government and religious right. Their actions represent a setback in bringing HIV/AIDS under control."

That segment is followed by this statement:

Health experts point to countries such as Thailand where a heavily promoted condom campaign is credited with slashing infection rates among sex workers in the 1990s.

What the Reuters reporter didn't do, is note that Thailand's once famed, condom based prevention program is ">now failing

But shouldn't somebody be asking why Uganda has maintained a low AIDS rate, and Thailand's rate is now growing? Or evaluating prevention programs, not on the basis of the morality of condoms and abstinence, and but on the bottom line--what working, and what not?

The US has committed to spending 15 billion dollars on AIDS over the next five years. By dropping our preconceptions, and asking hardnosed questions about solutions to the AIDS crisis, journalist can help ensure that the money is spent wisely--based in science, not ideology. And perhaps we can save a few million lives as as result.


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