By Donald G. McNeil Jr.
An experiment in giving away free female condoms in the nation’s capital is a “highly productive use of public health investment,” according to a new study by scientists at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The study data shows that the giveaway is quite expensive, however, and cost-effective only because caring for AIDS patients is even more expensive.
Two years ago, Washington public health authorities started giving away 500,000 female condoms in a campaign called “D.C.’s Doin’ It!” The study, published online on Monday in the journal AIDS & Behavior, concluded that giving away the first 200,000 cost $414,000 — mostly for education — and prevented 23 infections. That came to $18,000 per infection prevented, but the study called that efficient because the lifetime cost of H.I.V. medical care is $367,000. No cost comparisons to male condoms, syringe exchange or AIDS testing were made.
Although they were invented 30 years ago by a Danish doctor, female condoms have never really caught on, either among wealthy women for birth control or among poor women for AIDS protection. In a few countries, like Zimbabwe, they are popular among prostitutes.
In Washington, Dr. Gregory Pappas, the district’s chief of AIDS prevention and an author of the study, said: “Sex workers like them, high school girls like them, and high school boys also like them. They think: ‘Cool — I don’t have to worry about anything.’ ”