by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
HIV/AIDS activists have accused FIFA - the governing body of world soccer - of banning the distribution of condoms at this year's World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa.
FIFA is also preventing the distribution of safe sex information at World Cups stadiums and other venues, in spite of the fact that alcohol can be advertized there.
"To date, FIFA has not permitted any civil society organization to distribute HIV- or health-related information and FIFA has not provided any written confirmation that condoms may be distributed at stadia and within the fan-fests," a coalition of HIV/AIDS groups said in a statement. "This is despite the fact that commercial sponsors selling alcohol will have dedicated spaces available."
FIFA officials had originally banned distribution of any non-sponsor items or advertisements. Budweiser is one of the World Cup's corporate sponsors. HIV/AIDS organizations are not.
On June 7, FIFA issued a statement denying any effort to quash condom distribution at its World Cup venues.
FIFA's statement specifically commended the South African government's HIV/AIDS initiatives and promised to broadcast HIV messages and ads for Durex brand condoms as part of its match-day "infotainment."
AIDS groups countered the next day, issuing a statement reiterating their concerns and citing "inconsistencies" in FIFA's reply.
HIV/AIDS groups asked why, for example, FIFA promised to air ads only for Durex condoms, a brand that is too expensive for many South Africans, rather than more affordable brands or free condoms.
Sixty-five million condoms are awaiting distribution in South Africa, according to the South African government. In March, the British government announced it would donate 42 million condoms for distribution at World Cup venues.
According to government figures, more than 71 million condoms are now in circulation in South Africa.
Distribution of condoms and safe-sex information is critical because South Africa has the world's largest number of people with HIV/AIDS.
An estimated 5.7 million South Africans are infected - about one in every five adults. There are around 1,400 new HIV infections every day and nearly 1,000 AIDS deaths.
In April, South Africa launched the world's largest HIV testing and treatment program, aimed at providing anti-viral medications to 80% of the country's HIV-positive people, and testing 15 million people by the end of June 2011.
South African president, Jacob Zuma, earned praise for taking an HIV test himself, and disclosing his status. He was negative.
Such openness about HIV/AIDS is a striking turnabout for a country whose former president, Thabo Mbeki, denied the cause and extent of AIDS for years. Mbeki advocated treating HIV infections with home remedies like garlic and beets.
That position, health experts later said, contributed to hundreds of thousands of needless deaths.
While condoms are not available in World Cup venues, many tourist hotels are distributing them to guests.
"We don't want to frighten people," said Sergio Dreyer, general manager of Cape Town's Grand Daddy Hotel, when asked how guests were responding to its complimentary condoms. "But it's reality. At the end of the day, you can choose to be offended by it or not. Our brand is all about having fun. Plus, we don't see it as being offensive. It's because we care about our guests."
South African HIV/AIDS activists had hoped for similar openness from FIFA itself.
"What I hoped I would see at the World Cup would be very visible messaging," Mark Heywood, deputy chairman of the South African National AIDS Council, said in a June 8 interview.
"Obviously you don't want to drown out the World Cup; you don't have to spoil the party. None of us is suggesting that you have to have explicit safe-sex advertising on television being beamed around the globe. We're simply suggesting: 'Know your HIV status. Practice safe sex.'"
The June 8 statement came from a broad coalition of groups including the AIDS Consortium, Community Media Trust, Southern African HIV Clinicians Society, Section 27, and Treatment Action Campaign.
The groups said FIFA had a "moral obligation" to work with local organizations "to protect both citizens and visitors alike from HIV infection, TB and the H1N1 virus."
Their statement said they had requested an urgent meeting with FIFA and the local World Cup organizers to discuss their concerns, but without success.
FIFA said it was not aware of any such requests, and that a meeting was under way to address the issues.
"The World Cup is an opportunity to combine sport with messages about HIV prevention and healthy living that can be heard by millions of people," the groups' statement concluded. "It would be a tragedy to miss it."
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