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A new approach to putting condoms in the hands of those who need them most

photo courtesy: Paul Keller via flickr

Here’s a stat that might stun you: in 2008, philanthropic giving ensured 2.4 billion condoms were distributed worldwide.

The number is impressive, but now consider this: by 2015, some experts estimate that more than 18 billion condoms will be needed worldwide to meet global HIV prevention and family planning needs.

The takeaway? Despite the best efforts of many – access to condoms is still fairly limited in many parts of the world, and often in the places that need them most.

The benefits of the almighty condom are fairly well documented. If used properly, an effective condom can prevent unwanted pregnancies and stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

But is there a better way to put condoms into the hands of those that need them most? The American condom company Sir Richard’s thinks so, and they’re trying to improve on the time-tested condom concept.

Earlier this week, CNN profiled Sir Richard’s, which – in partnership with the organization Partners in Health – is taking a philanthropic approach to ensuring more condoms make their way to developing nations.

In the spirit of the “get one, give one” approach used by shoe and eyewear company TOMS, Sir Richard’s donates one condom to a developing nation for every condom purchased by their customers.

As the Sir Richard’s website acknowledges, a condom shortage in developing countries leaves millions of people susceptible to some of the world’s most preventable disease. The company thinks the approach might help boost donations to the point where a true impact could be seen over time.

“Condoms definitely work if used consistently and correctly,” said School of Public Health infectious disease epidemiologist Alan Lifson, M.D., M.P.H. “But access to condoms, although necessary and critical, isn’t the only issue for HIV prevention. Having condoms available is great, but will they be used? The way the people of a community look at condom use is really important. Often a cultural shift needs to be made that make condoms acceptable before they can be used.”

Lifson, whose research interests include HIV/AIDS and international health, said condoms should be part of a preventative strategy, but can’t be looked at in isolation.

“A real strategy is multi-part and may include universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support,” said Lifson. “While condoms are important tools in prevention, they can’t be the only ones used to really make a change.”

Aspects of a comprehensive “combination prevention” approach, Lifson explained, also include:

  • Education and behavior changes, including avoiding multiple and high-risk partners
  • Biological interventions, including use of HIV drugs by infected persons to reduce their infectiousness
  • Support for human rights and stigma reduction

So it appears the approach of Sir Richard’s is a start, but there is still work to be done on the ground level to ensure their donations are put to good use.

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