By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007
It comes in a purple and mustard-yellow package, with a message aimed squarely at anyone having sex in the nation's capital, and today the city will dispense 250,000 of these DC-branded condoms during a massive giveaway.
In a single morning, the kickoff distribution to groups working on the front line of HIV/AIDS will almost equal the number of condoms supplied by the D.C. Health Department in 2005 and 2006 combined. The agency wants to hand out 1 million by year's end, making the small package the most visible element of the District's efforts to reverse epidemic levels of the virus.
"It's overdue -- tangible proof we're doing something good for public health," said Gregg A. Pane, director of the department,
With condoms one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of HIV, Pane hopes that they will be placed prominently and accessibly not only in government buildings, health clinics and social service agencies but also in barbershops, nightclubs, convenience stores and other locations.
"We want to go places we haven't gone before," Pane said.
Officials had planned to introduce the new design on Valentine's Day, which, because of its amorous overtones, doubles as National Condom Day. And if internal complications and bad weather had not delayed the launch, the District would have shared the distinction of having the first municipally authorized protection in the country.
New York City alone claimed that distinction Wednesday, debuting a snazzy black condom wrapper with lettering like that used by the subway system. As many as 18 million are expected to be distributed in the city's five boroughs this year.
Compared with New York's catchy approach, including "We've got you covered," the District slogan, "Coming together to stop HIV in DC," seems clunky. And the slogan, borrowed from the department's HIV testing campaign last summer, has in this context a double entendre that officials said was not intended.
But the local package, printed in English and Spanish, has its defenders. "The good news is, it does have 'stop HIV' on it. It does say DC. It does have important information," said Walter Smith, whose organization, the DC Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, has issued several critical evaluations of the city's efforts to combat HIV/AIDS. Smith called today's distribution "a good first step," though he said the real test will be getting the condoms to the most at-risk populations.
"It's going to take some time to fine-tune the system to get to that," he added.
The first quarter-million condoms will go to a variety of community providers. Nearly half will be delivered to the Life Guard project, which in two months passed out 7,000 free condoms through a 24-hour laundromat, a late-night pizza joint and a fast-food restaurant east of the Anacostia River.
Early on, health officials largely dismissed the alliance of groups behind the project. They have had such a change of heart that today's announcement will be at that same SpinCycle Coin Laundry. "I think they understand the power of the community," said David Johnson, who has scouted Life Guard drop sites in Wards 7 and 8. "We're really looking for places to be in the city."
More than a dozen beauty salons and barbershops along the lower Georgia Avenue corridor will have plenty of condoms available to customers in coming months, thanks to the tens of thousands that Us Helping Us will receive today from the city. The nonprofit organization also will offer them in black gay clubs and neighborhood haunts already visited as part of its HIV outreach program.
Ron Simmons, Us Helping Us executive director, wonders whether people will treat the wrapper as a novelty -- and not use its contents. "The city is going to have to do a really good social marketing campaign," he said yesterday, "so people will become accustomed to the colors and packaging and realize these are reliable condoms."
At HIPS, which helps sex workers in the city, Executive Director Cyndee Clay offered a different thought.
"Packaging is very important in normalizing condom use, in showing that condoms are something everyone should carry, that everyone can carry," she said. "But all the cool packaging in the world is not necessarily going to make up for the conversation."
This first batch of condoms, made in China, expire in 2011.