Concerns Affect D.C. Condom Giveaway

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Tens of thousands of condoms provided free by the District to curb HIV-AIDS have been returned to the health department because of complaints that their paper packaging is easily damaged and could render the condoms ineffective.

Demand at two distribution sites in Southeast set up by nonprofit groups plummeted more than 80 percent after the condoms, in a mustard-yellow and purple wrapper, were introduced this year. More than 2,000 packets a week were scooped up in mid-March, but by late May, only 400 were being given away each week.

Volunteers concerned about why interest had dropped began asking people who had picked up the condoms. They were told about packets ripping in purses or bursting open in pockets. As a result, recipients said they had little confidence that the condoms would offer protection.

In addition, expiration dates on some of the Chinese-made condoms were illegible.

"People were saying, 'These packets aren't any good,' " said Franck DeRose, executive director of an organization called the Condom Project, one of those involved in the grass-roots distribution system. A coalition that includes the Condom Project sent back 100,000 condoms to the city, about 15 percent of what the city says has been passed out to groups.

In a city with some of the highest AIDS rates in the country, the government's effort to dispense up to 1 million condoms this year has drawn praise. But there has been little applause for the packets. The wrapper is emblazoned with the slogan "Coming Together to Stop HIV in D.C."

Concerns arose almost immediately after the program began. In interviews yesterday, officials at nearly half a dozen organizations that had been dispensing the condoms said they had received negative feedback from clients. Many said that the packaging seemed shoddy, they said.

"We're using them mostly for demonstration programs," said Cyndee Clay, executive director of HIPS, which helps sex workers in the city.

Some people were suspicious about the way the wrappers look. Even before reports of tearing, youths involved with the group Metro TeenAIDS wondered why the wrappers weren't plastic or foil, like those sold in stores.

"They doubted the authenticity of the condoms" and balked at taking them, executive director Adam Tenner said. "Distribution of those condoms has been really difficult," he said, and the nonprofit diverted funding from other programs to buy its own. "The question becomes, how do we fix this?"

The city health department apparently does not consider the situation a problem.

"To date, we have not received any substantive complaints," spokeswoman Leila Abrar said in a statement, which says that the District has given out nearly 650,000 condoms since February through partnerships with 50 organizations.

DeRose took issue with the department's position, saying that the groups handling the two high-volume distribution sites in Southeast tried to warn officials before sending back tens of thousands of packages.

"There was no talk about [getting] a different condom," he recounted yesterday. "They said, 'This is what we have.' "

The coalition, which launched a condom delivery pilot program last fall called Life Guard, again started buying condoms. Its supplies, made in India and Japan, are being rapidly depleted.

Every week, nearly 2,000 free condoms disappear from bowls displayed at a 24-hour laundromat and late-night fast-food restaurant. "The community spoke," DeRose said.

The health department has taken note of the critical comments about the appearance of the D.C. condom's package. For its next bulk buy, it will hold a "contest for new versions," according to Abrar's statement.

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