Tuesday, March 9, 2010

D.C. to Give Out Free Female Condoms for HIV Prevention

The city, which has epidemic-level infection rates, will be the first to make female condoms available for free.

Though most of the clamoring surrounding the city of Washington, D.C. This past week was over same-sex marriage getting underway, the city also took the lead in unveiling a new health initiative too. D.C. will be the first U.S. city to distribute female condoms free of charge, starting in the next few weeks. The condoms will be handed out at places like schools, convenience stores and salons – with consideration to neighborhoods with especially high rates of HIV/AIDS infections. A 2008 study showed a 3 percent rate of HIV in Washington, an alarmingly high number that qualifies as an epidemic.

So far the District has stopped short of urging universal HIV testing throughout the city, a proposal introduced earlier this year by South African researchers who believe a “test and treat” approach could eradicate AIDS worldwide within 50 years. But the city is right to try and integrate new approaches to preventing infection. Though male condoms are widely available for free, officials in D.C. hope that by making female condoms also available, they can empower women to take precaution measures into their own hands. Obviously, male condoms ultimately put the burden on the man. HIV/AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death among black women ages 25-34 nationwide.

Female condoms have been on the market since the early 1990s, but never gained wide use or popularity. According to the BBC, “The initial version of the contraceptive was judged by US customers to be too expensive. However, a new version now being used in countries including South Africa, Brazil, and Indonesia will be distributed in Washington DC and offered for sale in pharmacies alongside male condoms.”

Washington has already had a program that distributes free male condoms in place since 2008. Shannon Hader, director of the D.C. Department of Health's HIV/AIDS administration,told the Washington Post that "Anywhere male condoms are available, female condoms will be available. … We're trying to make every effort count to build on what already exists... to expand options rather than limit them.” The World Health Organization favors a similarly inclusive approach to preventing the spread of AIDS, putting equal emphasis on education, treatment and prevention.

The District still has a long way to go to turn the tide of HIV/AIDS infections. A report by the D.C. Department of Health found that many heterosexual couples engage in several types of behaviors that put them at great risk of contracting the disease: “some heterosexuals in committed relationships often have sex outside of the relationship, often do not know their partner’s HIV status, and often do not protect themselves by using condoms. These factors result in ongoing risk for HIV infection.”

Photo credit: Dam Smith

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