Female condom a new way to block pregnancy, disease

WOMEN'S HEALTH

August 02, 1994|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Medical Tribune News Service

Women and their partners have at their disposal a number of safe, effective choices for birth control. Now there is another option to add to the list, one that provides several new features to help give women control over sexually transmitted diseases and reproduction through a nonprescription, simple-to-use device.

The female condom, a barrier method to prevent pregnancy and disease, now is available in the United States, although distribution still is somewhat limited. Some family clinics are selling the device, which has been tested by 1,700 women in 30 countries.

Here are some frequently asked questions concerning the female condom:

Q: What is the female condom? How does it work?

A: The female, or vaginal, condom consists of a soft, loose-fitting polyurethane sheath and two flexible polyurethane rings, one at each end. One of the rings lies inside the closed end of the cervix. The outer ring forms the external edge of the sheath and remains outside the vagina after insertion.

The female condom does not require precise placement over the cervix by the user. Each condom is designed for one-time use. The polyurethane is considered a more comfortable and effective barrier than the latex used in most male condoms.

Q: What advantages, if any, does it present over other forms of birth control?

A: While other female barrier methods, such as the diaphragm, cervical cap and spermicides, provide some protection from sexually transmitted diseases, the female condom prevents semen from touching the woman and vaginal fluids from touching her partner.

By shielding the cervix, the female condom and the three traditional methods cited above offer effective protection against chlamydia, gonorrhea and various disease-causing organisms.

However, because of its superior physical coverage, the female condom has been shown in laboratory tests to be a much more effective barrier against the AIDS virus, which can infect a woman anywhere in the vaginal area.

A six-month study of the female condom and pregnancy prevention found a 13 percent failure rate, compared with failure rates of 10, 8 and 12 percent from the cervical cap, diaphragm and sponge, respectively. The failure rate for male latex condoms used in the study was 8 percent.

Although the failure rate for the female condom was somewhat higher, the majority of pregnancies resulted from failure to use the condom or incorrect use of it. As with any method of birth control, women (and men) should understand how to properly use their method of choice, then use it.

Q: How will I know if this method is right for me?

Birth control is a very personal decision. However, each method suggests some guidelines that may be helpful in deciding. Women who particularly may want to try the female condom are those who are sexually active in multiple-partner relationships -- or serial monogamous relationships -- who are concerned about sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, herpes and chlamydia.

Also, women who wish to stop using oral contraceptives, who are allergic to latex but want to use a barrier device, and those who want to share protection responsibility with their partners may want to consider the female condom.

On the other hand, the female condom may hold less interest for women in long-established sexual relationships who currently are satisfied with their method of protection, as well as women who do not like to use barrier devices.

"Like other barrier methods, the female condom may never be widely used for contraception," said Dr. Laurie S. Liskin, an associate with the Center for Communications Programs of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. "But it's an important option for women, both for avoidance of pregnancy and disease prevention. We need more funding and research to develop additional barrier methods for women to prevent infection."

Dr. Genevieve Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is a founding director of the school's Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.

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