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Could condoms change the world?

Could condoms change the world?
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Wednesday, May 29, 2013 - 7:29am

Companies are teaming up to help stop HIV, unwanted pregnancies in Haiti

Condoms do two things really well: They prevent unwanted pregnancies, and they stop the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases. Doing both can have a broad effect on a community's overall health, especially in developing nations where people have limited access to medical care.

The problem is that access to condoms in these countries is limited, says Sheila Davis, chief nursing officer for Partners in Health. Rural shops or roadside stands don't usually sell contraception, and supply shortages hinder health care workers' attempts to hand out free condoms at hospitals or clinics.

In 2008, donors provided about 2.4 billion condoms worldwide, according to the United Nations Population Fund. That's only a small percentage of the 18 billion experts estimate will be needed globally for HIV prevention and family planning by 2015. Some countries receive an average of one condom per man per year.

Davis has seen the effects of contraception shortages in Haiti. Unwanted pregnancies in the country spiked after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 220,000 people, according to the United Nations Population Fund. And Haiti continues to struggle with high prevalence rates of HIV.

To conquer the Caribbean nation's lack of contraception, Partners in Health has teamed up with Sir Richard's, an American condom company. Sir Richard's launched in 2009 with a similar business model as TOMS Shoes & Eyewear; for every condom bought, Sir Richard's donates one condom to a developing nation. Haiti is a trial run for the company, which plans to eventually expand to Africa and South America.

"If everyone bought our condoms, we could really change the world," says CEO Jim Moscou. "That's an extraordinary proposition, but it's very real."

Davis hopes that's the case. She's been working to fight AIDS since it first caught doctors' attention in the 1980s. Scientists were just beginning to identify the human immunodeficiency virus when she graduated from college in Boston. She worked with HIV-positive patients while earning her master's and doctoral degrees in nursing, and watched as a few mysterious AIDS cases in the United States turned into a global problem.

"(I) am hoping that we see an end to this pandemic in my lifetime," Davis says. "I've lost far too many patients and friends."

While data on the direct effect of free condoms in developing nations are limited, past campaigns in Uganda, Thailand and Brazil have shown that making condoms readily available can significantly reduce the transmission of HIV.

"Condoms will remain the key preventive tool for many, many years to come," said the United Nations, World Health Organization and UNAIDS in a joint statement in 2009. "Condoms must be readily available universally, either free or at low cost, and promoted in ways that help overcome social and personal obstacles to their use."

One of the ways Sir Richard's hopes to raise awareness and reduce stigma is through their marketing strategy. Instead of donating condoms designed for Americans, the company is creating new packaging based on the developing country's culture.

In Haiti, Sir Richard's tapped local designers and health care workers to develop the KORE condom brand. KORE, loosely translated, means "I've got your back" in Haiti's French Creole.

The contraceptive packaging is colorful, "poppy" and fun, says creative director Marc Baptiste, and each condom has step-by-step graphic instructions on the back.

"That's really about respect for the consumer," Moscou says of targeting the condom's brand for each country. "(If) you have a good brand that resonates with the demographic, that it will increase use. And increased used means less HIV, less STDs and less unwanted pregnancies."

"My goal is to catch them young," Baptiste says, noting that the condoms have gotten a great response so far. "It's in the street. It's cool."

As we've seen in the United States, providing free condoms -- especially to youth -- can be controversial. Some believe making contraception more available encourages people to have sex outside of marriage, at a younger age or with more partners.

But Davis says despite the country's Catholic culture, condoms are not religiously taboo in Haiti. Social media campaigns have helped destigmatize contraception and have conveyed the importance of protecting oneself, she says.

"I do think people want access to condoms and want to be able to have something that fits into their lives."

So far, Sir Richard's has donated more than 1.6 million condoms to Haiti. Consumers who want to help can purchase their products at Whole Foods stores or CVS pharmacies, where the condoms will roll out this month.

As the company's tongue-in-cheek tagline says, "Doing good never felt better."

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