GENEVA (AP) — Recent positive comments by the pope about condom use by male prostitutes will help fight the AIDS crisis, health groups said Sunday, although they cautioned that his remarks fell short of declaring condoms an acceptable method of disease prevention for all.

Speaking to a German journalist whose book was excerpted in a Vatican newspaper Saturday, the pontiff reiterated that condoms were not a moral solution for stopping AIDS. But he added that, in some cases, such as for male prostitutes, their use could represent a first step in assuming moral responsibility “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.”

A UNAIDS spokesman in Geneva said that while more than 80 percent of HIV infections are caused through sexual transmission, only four percent to 10 percent result from sex between men. There are no reliable statistics about how many infections might be prevented if male prostitutes routinely used condoms, said Mahesh Mahalingam.

However, even the limited example cited by the pope was a step in the right direction, said Mahalingam. “We are welcoming this as an opening up of discussion,” he told The Associated Press.

In South Africa, which has an estimated 5.7 million HIV-positive citizens – more people than any other country – and 500,000 new infections each year, activists guardedly greeted the Pope’s message.

Caroline Nenguke of the Treatment Action Campaign, a Cape Town, South Africa-based advocacy group for people living with HIV, called the Pope’s words a “step in the right direction.” But she said the message was unclear and could lead to misinterpretation.

Church members in the Philippines, Southeast Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, praised the pontiff’s words even as their leaders rejected any suggestion that the Vatican was softening its line on contraceptives.

While the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on artificial contraception was not in question, Benedict’s stunning remarks could re-ignite debate on contraceptive use in places like the Philippines, where the issue has recently pitted the new president against the influential Catholic church.

Philippines President Benigno Aquino III recently expressed support for the right to contraception. A church official has threatened to launch civil disobedience protests.