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YAOUNDE (Reuters) - The Vatican on Wednesday defended Pope Benedict's opposition to the use of condoms to stop the spread of AIDS as scientists and countries including his native Germany criticized it as unrealistic and dangerous.
Benedict, arriving in Africa, said on Tuesday that condoms "increase the problem" of AIDS. The comment, made to reporters aboard his plane, caused a worldwide storm of criticism.
"My reaction is that this represents a major step backwards in terms of global health education, is entirely counter-productive, and is likely to lead to increases in HIV infection in Africa and elsewhere," said Prof Quentin Sattentau, Professor of Immunology at Britain's Oxford University.
"There is a large body of published evidence demonstrating that condom use reduces the risk of acquiring HIV infection, but does not lead to increased sexual activity," he said.
The Church teaches that fidelity within heterosexual marriage and abstinence are the best ways to stop AIDS.
Asked about the criticism, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said the pope was "maintaining the position of his predecessors".
European governments weighed in with their criticism.
His native Germany, which had criticized him last month over his decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, argued that condoms played a decisive role in saving lives in the fight against AIDS.
"Modern development cooperation must give access to the means for family planning to the poorest of the poor. And the use of condoms is especially part of that," Germany's health and development ministers said in a joint statement.
"Anything else would be irresponsible," they added.
France expressed "very strong concern", saying the remarks "put in danger public health policy". Meanwhile, Belgium called the pope's comments "dangerous doctrinaire vision".
A New York Times editorial said the pope "deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings" about condoms.
The Vatican also says condoms can also lead to risky behavior but many contest that view.
Kevin De Cock, director of the World Health Organization's HIV/AIDS department, said there is no scientific evidence showing that condom use spurs people to take more sexual risks.
"The guidance we give is that condoms are highly (effective) to prevent the transmission of HIV if they are used correctly and consistently," he said in a telephone interview.
De Cock said abstinence and reducing the number of partners were also needed and praised faith-based groups, noting that many Catholic charities provide treatment for people with the virus in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world.
HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, infects 33 million people globally and has killed 25 million.
Two-thirds of those infected are in Africa, analysts say.
"Anything that reduces AIDS on a depressed continent like Africa should be welcomed," said Adeleke Agbola, a lawyer in Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation.
There were also some signs of dissent within the Church.
"Anyone who has AIDS and is sexually active, anyone who seeks multiple partners, must protect others and themselves," said Hans-Jochen Jaschke, Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop of Hamburg in the pope's native Germany.
"So, no taboo on the condom issue, but also no myths and trivialization as if these put the world in order. Condoms can protect, but men often reject them," the bishop added.
Additional reporting by Michael Kahn in London, David Lewis in Yaounde, Tom Heneghan in Paris, Phil Stewart in Rome, Paul Carrel and Noah Barkin in Berlin, and Tume Ahemba and Kingsley Igwe in Lagos; editing by Philippa Fletcher