Will Condoms Protect Against World Cup Fever?

Soccer fans surged into South Africa this week, waving national flags and bearing face paint. The month-long World Cup 2010 kicked off with a celebration concert featuring Shakira and The Black Eyed Peas but the first round of games ended in a draw. With more than 2.2 million tourists flooding the nation, South African health leaders are using the world's largest sporting event as an opportunity to highlight the importance of HIV testing and promote safe-sex practices in a new campaign.

As many as 100,000 prostitutes from all over the world will come to South Africa in search of customers, in a region where about 50 percent of sex workers are infected with HIV.

A series of ads sponsored by Brothers for Life features soccer stars Thierry Henry and Matthew Booth calling on men to be responsible and faithful.

"Be a man who chooses a single partner over multiple chances with HIV," Booth says in one ad.

In Johannesburg, the city council distributed health and safety brochures with condoms attached, encouraging tourists to "be [men] at home and away, use a condom."

City council spokesman Virgil James said, "It's one thing to say to people, 'Don't get involved in prostitution.' Yet we know there will be our own residents, as well as soccer lovers, who will engage in that activity. So we're saying, 'If you do, at least use a condom. Protect yourself.'"

Cape Town hotelier Sergio Dreyer agreed, and says that is why guests at over 30 hotels in the area will be given free condoms. "We don't want to frighten people, but it's reality. We don't see it as being offensive. It's because we care about our guests," he said.

Pope Benedict XVI has said that handing out condoms is not the answer in the fight against HIV/Aids: "[it's]a tragedy that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which can even increase the problem," he said.

According to UN figures for 2007 some 22 million people are infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, about two-thirds of the global total. South Africa has the world's highest incidence of HIV/AIDS, with roughly 12 percent of the population afflicted.

While it is unusual for FIFA to advertise anything other than beer at its matches, Mark Heywood of the South African National AIDS Council said he hoped to see "very visible messaging" at the World Cup.

"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," said the deputy chairman.

South Africa’s Central Drug Authority reports there are about 1,400 new HIV infections and nearly 1,000 AIDS deaths every day in the country. Perhaps this year's soccer games will bring worldwide attention to a cause greater than the Cup.



                                Carma Hassan

Carma is a Peabody award-winning broadcast journalist in the Bay Area.