Reinventing the rubber

2013-04-07 10:00

Bill and Melinda Gates are on a mission to sex up the standard sheath.

The humble, much-maligned condom is a crucial weapon in the fight against HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted infections.

But software tycoon Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, believe condoms are not nearly sexy enough – so they’re offering $100 000 (R907?770) to the person who can create the next-generation condom.

The couple have issued this challenge on their foundation’s blog: “What if we could develop a condom that would provide all the benefit of our current versions, without the drawbacks? Even better, what if we could develop one that was preferred to no condom?”

South Africans, research shows, don’t mind using condoms – it’s just the packaging that bothers us.

The Aids Foundation of SA published a survey last year that showed that 95% of South Africans want the government to rebrand its free Choice condoms to make them more appealing.

Research by the Society for Family Health in SA showed that condom sales were steadily increasing here.

More than 80% of sexually active South African adults buy condoms, the research found. A little alarmingly, however, was the finding that only three-quarters used rubbers regularly.

Another survey, published in the British Royal Society’s Interface journal in 2009, attributes South Africa’s slowly declining HIV-infection rate to more young men using condoms.

They survey found the proportion of young South African men aged 16 to 24 who reported using a condom during their last sexual encounter leapt from 20% in 1999 to 75% in 2009.

But gender power plays still play a big role.

“The undeniable, and unsurprising, truth is that most men prefer sex without a condom, while the risks related to HIV infection and complications of unplanned pregnancy are disproportionately borne by their partners,” the Gates’ wrote on their foundation’s blog.

One of the big changes the couple envisions is to the condom’s much-loathed latex composition.

The foundation is excited about research at the University of Washington, which is developing a condom using a technique known as electrospinning.

This creates tightly woven fabric out of nanometre-sized polymer strands and could be used to deliver spermicidal or microbicidal agents in addition to providing a physical barrier.

The deadline for applications is May 7. Condom inventors should visit www.grandchallenges.org.

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