Health official slammed over condomless AIDS drive

JERUSALEM — Health Minister Shlomo Benizri was attacked by AIDS experts and even halachic authorities last week for his decision to remove photos of condoms from the ministry's International AIDS Day campaign.

He was also blasted for suggesting in an Army Radio interview that it might be better to cancel the public-education campaign against AIDS altogether and spend the money on providing expensive medications to patients with other diseases.

Benizri, a member of the fervently religious Shas Party, instructed his office not to use pamphlets and posters showing a man holding a rolled-up condom in his hand. That material had been used by the ministry for International AIDS Day for three years, when he was deputy health minister.

"I don't have the adequate words to express my disgust," said Professor Zvi Bentwich, head of the AIDS clinic at Kupat Holim Clalit's Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot. "Apparently his religious urges have overcome his senses. A threat to life must supersede the notion of modesty" about sexual matters.

"I have haredim [fervently religious Jews] come to our clinic and ask if they should use condoms. I tell them they won't protect them 100 percent, but that they are the safest thing to prevent HIV infection. Haredim say if you're observant, there is no risk of AIDS, that it's not accepted to speak about AIDS in their community. But this is hypocrisy. Don't some haredim go to prostitutes? Haven't some penitent Jews been infected?" he added.

Noting that the World Health Organization recommends condoms to prevent infection, Bentwich said, "Africa is burning due to AIDS. People are dying. While Israel is, fortunately, not in that situation, more people are being infected every day, and you can't ignore it. How do I explain that this is the view of Israel's health minister in 1999?

"The health minister thinks that AIDS belongs only to homosexuals and drug addicts, whom his community wants to excommunicate anyway. But most AIDS carriers are heterosexual."

Benizri was criticized even by observant Jews — although they declined to allow their names to be published. "I'm a coward, so I can't comment on this issue in the paper in my name," said a prominent Jerusalem rabbi who specializes in medical-halachic matters. But condoms to prevent infection with AIDS "are clearly a matter of pikuach nefesh," or preventing risk to life.

A highly regarded expert on Jewish medical ethics and halachah said Benizri's policy is "unadvised. He should have just let the ministry go out and tell the truth — that condoms don't protect against AIDS infection 100 percent.

"In lower socioeconomic groups, according to a study in the American Journal of Medicine, they can even increase the risk because people — especially those under the age of 26 — think they're completely safe and may behave recklessly. However, condoms can provide anywhere from 66 percent to 90 percent protection against infection."

He added that under Benizri's predecessor, Yehoshua Matza, "the Health Ministry declared that condoms meant 'safe sex' and were the answer to AIDS. Now, Benizri is acting at the other extreme. Neither view is correct."