Condom Effectiveness: Fact Vs. Fiction

Earlier this week, I invited everyone to start an open dialogue about human sexuality, how we communicate about sex, and sex education.

Yesterday, I received an email from a reader that asked, "I have an aunt...who says that latex condoms don't work against AIDS, because the latex has microscopic holes and actually those don't work against the virus. Is this correct?"

It sounds like your aunt is getting her information from the Vatican. This pseudoscientific claim is used to discourage condom use in third-world countries, an extremely frightening thought. The United Nations Population Fund, the World Health Organization, and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS released an updated statement in 2009:

"Laboratory studies show that male latex condoms are impermeable to infectious agents contained in genital secretions."

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that "laboratory studies have demonstrated that latex condoms provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size of STD pathogens."

This does NOT mean that condoms are 100% effective, however. The CDC warns that "to achieve maximum protection by using condoms, they must be used consistently and correctly.
The failure of condoms to protect against STD/HIV transmission usually results from inconsistent or incorrect use, rather than product failure."

A 1992 meta-analysis of condom effectiveness showed a 69% reduction in HIV transmission in individuals who use condoms. The authors are candid in reporting that the original studies had design limitations. It is also unclear what role condom malfunction or "user error" played in the reduction in efficacy. A 2001 study of condom usage shows that women think that condoms slip or break more often than they actually do, and there seems to be an inconsistency in self-report of condom efficacy and actual protection.

There is a remote chance that very small viruses, like HIV, may be able to pass through a condom if the condom is defective, although the semen containing the virus cannot. A study performed with artificial virus in a laboratory setting revealed that the latex membrane of condoms is usually HIV-sized virus impervious, and 98.8% of HIV-sized virus penetration in the study came from 2 of 470 tested condoms.

One thing is clear, however. Using a condom is significantly safer than not using one. Condoms do prevent pregnancy and they do reduce the risk of transmitting HIV. A recent study shows that HIV/AIDS misinformation is rampant in South Africa, a country where 20% of the young male population is HIV-positive. Especially among young black adults, those who hold misconceptions about HIV/AIDS are less likely to use condoms. A meta-analysis of 67 studies published earlier this year confirms that having access to condoms, being instructed on their proper application, and actually using them significantly reduces the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

And for any HIV/AIDS deniers out there, please read these fact sheets provided by The Skeptic's Dictionary,, and SMU.

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