Brazilian health officials on Sunday began distributing millions of condoms to fight the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases during Brazil’s five-day Carnival 2008.

The government expects to hand out 19.5 million condoms by the end of the Carnival on February 6, state news service Agencia Brasil reported, under the program first launched several years ago.

“We have to let society know the importance of prevention,” health minister José Gomes Temporão said as he kicked off the campaign at a Rio de Janeiro cultural centre, according to AP.

Church officials in Brazil, which is home to the world’s largest Roman Catholic population, have opposed the condom programme, as well as another plan to hand out morning-after pills during Carnival in the city of Recife.

“The church has nothing against having fun during carnival, but the banalisation of human sexuality is something we cannot tolerate,” Bishop Antônio Augusto Dias Duarte of the Life and Family Commission of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops said last week.

“It will only serve to diminish inhibitions and encourage orgiastic behaviour.”

About 80% of young men polled by the Health Ministry reported using condoms, although just 40% of women said they insist on it, Temporão said, without giving more details on the survey.

Nearly 600,000 Brazilians are HIV-positive, of whom 200,000 are being treated, he said, according to AP.

The United Nations has praised Brazil’s AIDS treatment program, which provides free antiviral medications that significantly improve life expectancy, as a global model.