Saturday, April 03, 2010

Labeling for safe sex

I’VE tried citrus, chocolate and bubble-gum.

In Ethiopia, where banana, strawberry and chocolate are common, coffee-flavored was introduced.

Packaging a product as “Coffee Sensation” in a country known as the “birthplace of coffee” may seem to be trite hard-sell.

Yet, with the HIV/Aids epidemic cutting short the life expectancy of Ethiopians by seven years, pushing a caffeine fixation may not just sell more condoms but also save more lives.

Closer home, the debate is the reverse. Church leaders and pro-life groups protest the Department of Health’s free condom distribution.

If vocal critic, Dr. Rene Josef Bullecer, had his way, condoms should be sold with this warning: “This product is not 100 percent guaranteed safe, use it at your own risks (sic).”

According to Nicole J. Managbanag’s Mar. 31, 2010 article in Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro, Bullecer criticized as “half-truths” the government campaign equating safe sex with condom use.

Given that the country director of Human Life International and former chairman of Cebu City’s Anti-Indecency Board has a litany of complaints against condoms—as contraceptives, condoms are seen by him as devices of immorality, promoting pre- and extramarital sex—perhaps condom sellers may have to come up with a bigger package to sell a device that’s about the size of a P5 coin.

Then again, even church officials may strike that idea since generating more residual waste will contradict their latest advocacy for the environment.
Bullecer has a point, though. Although he has been publicly vilifying condoms recently, in early 2000, he admitted during my face-to-face interview with him for a Sun.Star Cebu special report that condoms may be the only “reasonably effective” protection for the sexually active against HIV/Aids.

For the condoms to be 100-percent failure-proof, though, Bullecer said, on the record, that people must be educated about their use.

That’s a finding echoed by government and non-government adult educators on reproductive health. Shocking but illuminating were the results of a survey conducted among Cebu City urban youth sometime in 2000.

During a forum organized by the Remedios Aids Foundation (RAF) Inc. and Youth Zone (YZ) Cebu, I learned that some of the study respondents slipped on a condom only after consummation of intercourse, thinking that this would prevent pregnancy.

Another finding was that some youths did not know how to put on or remove condoms without tearing the sheath.

In 1993, another study was made by John Jardenil and Marianna Balquiedra among high school and college students using the RAF Inc. hotline in Metro Manila. The study found that 84 percent of the callers did not use condoms because they did not know it protected them from HIV infection; perceived that condoms decreased sensitivity and pleasure; relied on their sexual partners’ knowledge about safe sex; had no condoms at the time of need; or were under the influence of alcohol and unable to opt for safe sex.

Will labeling condoms as tutti-frutti or banana be better than a grim warning, from the standpoint of public health?

An axiom of communication is to have both senders and receivers operating at the same wavelength to transact successfully. According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids, “young people account for around 40 percent of all new adult HIV infections worldwide.”

Less hype and hysteria, more information and dialogue, would help us cross the divide between preserving our culture and public health. As a pioneer in telephone counseling in the country, the RAF Inc. provides reproductive health information and referral services through its hotlines.

This non-government organization (NGO) also taps text messaging, interactive online chatting and face-to-face counseling for students, young adults and anyone walking in YZ Cebu, a youth center located at a downtown mall. Then a mother of tweeners when I covered this NGO, I was reminded by the YZ Cebu ambience of Cabbages and Condoms, an irreverent chain of restaurants in Bangkok where I was given a keychain containing a purple, grinning condom.

The keychain label read: “In case of emergency, break glass.”

( 09173226131)

*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Apr. 4, 2010 issue of “Matamata”

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