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Stop Aids campaign hit by controversy

"Dear Father, if Rome doesn’t want you to talk about contraception, then talk about condoms instead" (Stop Aids)

A poster from the government's latest Aids prevention campaign has been withdrawn, following complaints by the Catholic Church in Switzerland.

The Swiss Bishops Conference said the poster, which advised priests to talk about condoms, was insensitive.

The Federal Health Office's Stop Aids campaign for 2003 was launched last week.

It consists of a series of bright yellow posters reminding all sections of society that safe sex means always using a condom.

The campaign comes after an alarming 25 per cent increase in levels of HIV infection in Switzerland in 2002.

Swiss health officials believe many people, especially the younger generation, may be becoming complacent about the threat of Aids.

Posters outside churches

The offending poster, which was published primarily in German, read: "Dear Father, if Rome doesn't want you to talk about contraception, then talk about condoms instead."

In line with this year's campaign policy of targeting specific institutions with specific messages, it was to have been hung outside Catholic churches.

Agnell Rickenmann, secretary of the Swiss Bishops Conference, said that although the Catholic Church in Switzerland was not completely opposed to the Stop Aids campaign, this particular poster went too far.

"I think it's a question of content and manner of communication," Rickenmann told swissinfo. "These posters were first unveiled at the start of Holy week, as Christians were preparing for Easter - that's a sensitive time for them."

"And then on content, if you put the question of pregnancy [and contraception] on the same level as a disease like Aids, for me that's a big problem because they are totally different."

No climbdown

The Federal Health Office denied that it had caved in to the Catholic Church by withdrawing the offending poster.

"It only looks like that at first sight," said Lee Chung-Yol, who is deputy director of the Federal Health Office.

"In fact we are only removing one particular poster," Lee told swissinfo. "And we are doing so because it specifically names one particular church, and a particular state [Rome]."

"We realised that that was the only poster in the whole campaign which was specific in that way, and we felt that it was not appropriate for us, a representative of one state, to be naming another like that."

"And anyway," he continued, " we have over 100 different posters, so I don't think removing one will hurt the campaign itself."

Controversy

The Federal Health Office is used to attracting attention, some of it critical, with its Stop Aids campaigns.

In the early 1990s, when Switzerland had one of the highest rates of HIV infection in Europe, a television advert showed two gay men frolicking in an alpine meadow, followed by warnings to always use a condom.

A later campaign suggested that anyone considering an extramarital affair should not do so without a condom.

Finally, and perhaps most controversial of all, a film shown only in cinemas contained scenes of a couple embracing, in which the final shot was a close up of a penis tied in a knot - a stark reminder never to have sex without a condom.

All these campaigns were guaranteed to offend those sections of the population who believe that abstention is the best recipe for Aids prevention.

But the Federal Health Office remained undeterred, and this year is no exception.

While one poster may have been withdrawn, 7,000 are due to be placed over the next few weeks, carrying the Aids prevention message across the country.

swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes

Key facts

Rates of HIV infection rose by more than 25 per cent in Switzerland last year.
The new Stop Aids campaign targets specific groups, encouraging them to take an active role in Aids prevention.
The Swiss Bishop's Conference protested about one poster asking Catholic priests to talk about condoms.
The offending poster has now been withdrawn.

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