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Why the Gates Foundation wants better condoms

Keith Beaty/Toronto Star

Imagine there was a dirt-cheap, widely-available medical device that could effectively prevent HIV, STDs and unwanted pregnancies.

Well, such a device exists -- it's called a condom.

But -- as pointed out by this post on Impatient Optimists, a blog hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- condoms are woefully underutilized. According to a report by the United Nations Population Fund, between 8 and 10 billion condoms are being used in low and middle-income countries -- but that's only half of the condoms needed to protect the world's population from HIV and other STDs.

The reality is this: most people prefer sex without condoms. The authors of the blog post, Papa Salif Sow and Stephen Ward, write this:

"It may seem obvious, but the success and impact of any public health tool hinges on that tool being used consistently and correctly by those who need it.  Vaccines sitting on shelves don’t prevent disease.  New tuberculosis drug regimens won’t help if patients stop taking them halfway through the necessary days.  Likewise, the potential value of condoms is limited by inconsistent use."

That's why the Gates Foundation is looking for bright ideas for better condoms in their latest round of Grand Challenges Explorations, which provides funding towards innovative research in global health. And their challenge is, well, challenging to say the least: build a condom that men will prefer to no condom.

As the authors write, the Gates Foundation is already funding groups doing innovative work on condoms. Researchers at the University of Washington are developing a condom of sci-fi proportions made of "electrically spun cloth with nanometer-sized fibers." The condom can dissolve (!), either within minutes or over several days, while also releasing spermicidal agents and antivirals.

The authors also point out a company called Origami Condoms, which has designed some funky-shaped silicone condoms -- for men, women, and anal sex -- that easily slip on in 2.8 seconds and simulate sans-condom sex. The company began clinical trials in 2011. (New Scientist has helpfully provided a demo video of the Origami condom in action).

Think you can come up with something better? The Grand Challenges Explorations application form is here.

Jennifer Yang is the Toronto Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar


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There is already a better condom. It is made from Isoprene, which is more comfortable and less allergy producing than latex, and provides even better sensation than silicone, although it is more expensive.

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