April 17, 2009

New Female Condom Could Encourage Use

Advocates of safe sex are hoping a less expensive and easier to use female condom will help the global fight against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Sixteen years ago an early version of the female condom was made available, and right now it is the only available form of protection for females against STDs and unintended pregnancy. Its usage is still minuscule despite a global push by the United Nations.

The Food and Drug Administration approved the new version of the female condom produced by the Chicago-based Female Health Co. (FHC)

Last year 35 million female condoms were distributed worldwide.

Yet, that's only a drop in the bucket compared to more than 10 billion male condoms during the same time frame, which are less expensive and perceived to be easier to use.

Many men refuse to wear condoms, putting women at risk in some countries.

The new female condom looks similar to the older version with a soft, transparent sheath with flexible inner and outer rings. However, the FC2 is made from synthetic rubber rather than polyurethane, making it cheaper to produce.

Mary Ann Leeper, former president of Female Health Co. and now its strategic adviser, said the FC2 also is less noisy during use. Prior complaints about squeaky noises slowed acceptance of the original version.

For now, the price of the FC2 is about 60 cents compared to less than 4 cents for mass-distributed male condoms that makes a major difference in the developing world.

Advocates of the female condom supported the FDA announcement because it opens the door for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), one of the largest global providers of condoms, to distribute the FC2 overseas.

"This is a tremendous victory," said Susie Hoffman, an assistant professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University who contends the female condom has suffered from misconceptions.

"In the United States, there has been strong bias against it," Hoffman said. "Some people involved in AIDS and family planning would say, 'Why do we need these? ... It's so weird that women are not going to pick it up.'"

"But if presented in the right way, many women do like it," Hoffman said. "To find these people and help them and train them, you need systematic programming, which costs money."

The U.N. Population Fund, government agencies, and nonprofits are all aggressively promoting female condoms in places like Brazil, Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

"The mindset is changing, but there are still a lot of challenges," said Bidia Deperthes, the Population Fund's HIV technical adviser for condoms. "Accessibility is still minimal. There's a huge demand, and we're not meeting it."

Serra Sippel, executive director of the Center for Health and Gender Equity in Washington, said FDA approval of the FC2 is a key step toward "putting the power of prevention in women's hands."

But Sippel complained about the product's limited over-the-counter availability.

"We'd love to see the profile raised, to have commercials about it and normalize it so people aren't embarrassed," she said.

The female condom's advocates stress that it will never be the "magic bullet" that by itself turns the tide in fighting AIDS. But, they say, it should be a bigger part of the arsenal.

"It's not going to be the one answer," Hoffman said. "But it's got a lot more to contribute than it has to date."


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