An Optimistic View of the Condom’s Effectiveness

In June 2000, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, the National Institutes of Health convened a workshop to examine the scientific evidence on the effectiveness of male latex condoms in preventing the transmission of eight STDs (HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, chancroid, trichomoniasis, genital herpes and genital human papillomavirus) during penile-vaginal intercourse. Some 138 peer-reviewed articles on the subject were evaluated, and one year later, a report was released. Among its main findings were that consistent and correct condom use prevents HIV infection and gonorrhea, but that the available evidence was insufficient to form a conclusion about the other six STDs. In a viewpoint published in Perspectives, Willard Cates, Jr.—president of Family Health International—characterized the report’s findings as clearly showing that “the glass is 90% full (that condoms are relatively effective) and only 10% empty (that data are inadequate).” He cautioned against misinterpreting or mischaracterizing the workshop’s inability to make a determination in regard to some of the STDs as meaning that condoms are ineffective—as some advocates and members of the press did after the report was released. Instead, he rightly urged readers to “recognize that incremental, partially effective steps are necessary to mount collectively effective (but imperfect) prevention programs.”

Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Family Planning Perspectives may be accessed through Wiley Online Library (2003–) and JSTOR (1969–2011).

Cover illustrations of Margaret Sanger © Matthew and Eve Levine

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