President Abel Pacheco proposed last week that Central American leaders talk to the region’s Catholic bishops about the need for condoms as a way to prevent the spread of AIDS –thus challenging the Church’s long-held stance against the use of condoms, and marking a new level of attention to the disease from the region’sleaders.Pacheco made the proposal in San Salvador Nov. 11 during the first summit ever to bring together Central American Presidents specifically to address the spread of AIDS on the isthmus, which includes the two countries with the highest national HIV prevalence in Latin America, Guatemala and Honduras, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS).Pacheco said in a press conference that Central America is “moving forward” in the fight against the epidemic, and condom use is openly discussed in the region. The President added that government representatives around Central America will bring the condom discussion to bishops of the Catholic Church.PACHECO is not the only public figure to challenge the Church’s condom stance in recent months. Ottón Solís, presidential candidate for the Citizen Action Party (PAC), announced he would try to counter the Church’s position if elected (TT, Oct. 7).During a debate between presidential candidates last month, Solís said that as President, he would bargain with Church leaders to authorize the use of condoms in exchange for government opposition to all forms of abortion. (Now, the law allows for therapeutic abortion, practiced to save a mother’s life.)However, such debate has not yet reached Church leaders. Hugo Barrantes, Archbishop of San José, told The Tico Times the government has not yet contacted the church to discuss condom use.If it does, Barrantes said the Church’s response would very likely be the same one it has sustained for years: that condoms are artificial birth-control methods and Catholics cannot accept their use.“THE Church does not agree (with condom use). We are convinced that the use of these contraceptives does not stop the (AIDS) pandemic. Their use is not the best way of preventing AIDS,” he said.In El Salvador, Archbishop Fernando Sáenz, who said he closely followed the Latin American AIDS meetings held in San Salvador last week, echoed Barrantes’ anti-condom stance, telling ACAN-EFE he rejects the use of birth control to prevent AIDS.According to Sáenz, the “propagation and promotion of birth control creates an increase in dishonest actions, in trusting that there will be no effects if promiscuity is promoted, so the results are absolutely negative.”THE summit President Pacheco attended concluded a week of HIV forums and activities held in San Salvador. The events started Nov. 7 with the two-day IV Central American Gathering of People Living with HIV. The III Latin American HIV Forum and the IV Central American HIV Congress Forum (CONCASIDA 2005) were held Nov. 9-11, with the participation of more than 3,500 Central American delegates including government officials, representatives from international organizations and nonprofits, and people with HIV, among others.Central American nations “woke up a bit late” to the fact that they have a growing problem with HIV infection and AIDS, said Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS.According to a UNAIDS fact sheet, in Central America, where AIDS is concentrated largely in urban areas, HIV infections have been on the rise since the late 1990s and prevail mostly in Guatemala and Honduras, where national HIV incidence was over 1% at the end of 2003.Piot said in these two countries, AIDS is rapidly spreading, especially among emigrants, gay men, prostitutes and prison inmates.At the end of 2003, Honduras had 63,000 people with HIV, making it Central America’s most afflicted country.IN Central America, HIV-infected men outnumber women by a ratio of approximately 3:1, according to the fact sheet.However, more and more women are coming down with the disease throughout the region, Piot said, but “some people still think it is a man’s disease.”Although many Ticos might think that way, statistics prove otherwise. While the ratio of infection in the country used to be one woman for every seven men, it has now risen to one to four (TT, April 15).Since the disease emerged in the country in 1982, more than 4,450 people have tested positive for HIV here.However, government health authorities say between 15,000-20,000 others might be infected with the disease unknowingly.CENTRAL Americans must do more to prevent infection and remove the social stigma attached to the illness, Piot told ACAN-EFE prior to Friday’s summit.“One of the main points is that the region’s leaders have to spend more of their budgets on it, and not depend so much on international funds, which should only be complementary,” Piot said.Though there has been some improvement, Central America has been deficient in reporting AIDS cases, he pointed out, principally because of the stigma attached and because of discrimination against people with the disease, who choose to conceal it.“I am an optimist and see progress.Treatment is offered, but there is a large gap in terms of prevention, especially among children, women, the young, and gay males,” Piot said.He noted that though the world’s first AIDS case was diagnosed 24 years ago, this is the first time Central American Presidents are meeting to specifically address the problem.In addition to Pacheco, Salvadoran President Tony Saca and Guatemalan President Oscar Berger participated in the event. Nicaragua was represented by its vice-president, Alfredo Gómez, and Honduras and Panama by their health ministers.AT the close of their meeting, the leaders issued a declaration resolving to “take all the legal, educational, informational and communication steps necessary to reach the entire population with the goal of reducing discriminatory behaviors and improving knowledge of the rights of people living with HIV, as well as access to the protection of those rights.”In addition, they vowed to “refocus efforts” on preventing HIV/AIDS through specific programs designed with the active participation of people most vulnerable to HIV and people already living with it.Finally, the leaders committed to maintaining and increasing the resources their nations devote to combating the disease, and called for international donors, bilateral as well as multilateral, to increase their support to their region.THE United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), represented last Friday by Nils Kastberg, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, launched a campaign during the summit that aims to reduce the number of young people who have HIV in the region by 25% by the year 2010, according to a UNICEF press release.Kastberg said achieving this goal requires promoting abstinence, fidelity and condom use.Approximately 740,000 young people between 15 and 24 have HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the Caribbean.The Central American health ministers will meet at the end of the month in Nicaragua to advance the presidential accords made last week.