India to Fight AIDS With Female Condoms

India will introduce female condoms (search) later this year to help fight the spread of AIDS among its billion-plus population, with cheap supplies available to commercial sex workers, the state-owned contraceptive maker said Friday.

"Female condoms will empower the woman to protect herself from infection," M. Ayyappan, managing director of Hindustan Latex Ltd. told The Associated Press.

A government study in 2004 showed that despite annual sales of 1.6 billion male condoms, cases of HIV in India (search) had reached 5.1 million, second only to South Africa, and that a third of them were women.

According to the study, 15 percent of cases were sex workers and another 22 percent housewives with a single partner.

Ayyappan said some male clients resisted using condoms when they visited sex workers which was one reason why the government's strategy to promote male condoms as the primary protection against infection had achieved only limited success.

"Female condoms will transfer the power of decision-making to women," Ayyappan said.

He said the company's aim was to provide every sex worker with the right to use a condom every time with every client.

HLL will initially import condoms from the London factory of Chicago-based Female Health Co. and start selling them in September, Ayyappan said, without detailing how many would be imported. He said the company would start manufacturing their own condoms at a later date.

A female condom is a lubricated shield that is slipped, closed-end first, into the vagina. The open end remains outside, partially covering the labia.

While a yearlong study funded by the two companies showed that 94 percent of sex workers polled liked and wanted to use the female condom, Ayyappan said one of the difficulties in promoting it would be price.

It will cost the company about $1 to import one condom, while marketing and distribution will add another $1.3, he said.

India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has agreed to support the new product as part of the National AIDS Control Program and is considering a subsidy to bring down the price to 12 cents for commercial sex workers.

A typical sex worker gets anywhere between $1 and $23 per client although most women's earnings are nearer the lower end of the range.

Female condoms will also be available over the counter for $2.3 each.

Chandrasekhar Gowda, who heads a non governmental project teaching sex workers how to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, said that sex workers needed more than just a condom.

"The female condom will give woman a choice. She will no longer be dependent on the man's decision," Gowda said.

"But it can be fully successful only if sex workers are able to negotiate the use of condom with their clients. We must work to increase the negotiating power of sex workers so that men come to accept female condoms. "