Do latex condoms really have pores large enough to allow the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to pass through?
This was the claim of pro-life Senator Vicente Sotto III who said condoms only prevent pregnancy, and not the spread of HIV.
"For their information, HIV is smaller than the pores of condoms which can only prevent pregnancy. Scientifically proven...I suggest they buy themselves some time to read and study before you speak about serious issues that men like me have been championing for decades," he said in a statement.
Sotto's statement, however, runs counter to recommendations of health experts as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) that condoms help reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections including HIV.
According to WHO, significant ways to cut the risk of HIV infection include correct use of latex condoms, use of only water-based lubricants in combination with latex condoms during intercourse, and abstinence or maintenance of a long-term monogamous relationship.
Studies have shown that latex condoms do not have pores even when viewed under high-powered microscopes.
A study by the US National Institutes of Health found no latex condom pores at x2000 magnification, while another by Consumers Union found no pores when a condom was examined by a scanning electron microscope at x30,000 power, the magnification at which even HIV-size particles (0.1 microns) can be seen.
Health Assistant Secretary Eric Tayag said Sotto might have been referring to lambskin condoms, an old type of condom, which can only block sperm cells, which are larger than HIV at 3 microns.
“[For comparison], ang buhok, 17 microns [ang size],” he said.
He noted that condoms that are widely available in the market, and procured by DOH, are latex condoms.
“Wala talagang butas ang condoms…Even ii-stretch ito, [any failures] are due to manufacturing or human error. To prevent this, 2-3 times nilulubog ang latex,” he said.
Tayag clarified that while he thinks Sotto’s statement was likely due to wrong information from a source, he is not pitting the DOH against the senator.
He also clarified that in order for condoms to be foolproof, they need to be used “correctly and consistently”. This is in accordance with World Health Organization guidelines which recommend condom use as part of comprehensive reproductive health plans.
Other alternatives to latex condoms include polyurethane or polysporene condoms, which are best for those who are allergic to latex.
According to condom producer and reproductive health advocate DKT International, latex condoms are 98-99 percent effective in preventing HIV transmission, and also reduce the risk for other sexually transmitted diseases.
'LOVE IS VALUABLE'
Tayag said the health department and other experts recommend condom use be merely complementary to proper sex education and abstinence as a way to curb HIV infection.
He noted condom distribution among students aged 18 and above is only a small part of a wider sex education program of DOH, saying media should not focus on condoms as the primary way to curb HIV infection.
"Ang isinusulong namin ay strictly abstinence, lalo na kung family planning ang gusto nila…nakikipag-usap kami sa DepEd kasi gusto malaman ng DOH kung kalian nila maro-rollout ang sexuality education," Tayag said.
Philippine Medical Association President Irineo Bernardo III meanwhile emphasized the importance of sex education that "preserves Filipino culture" of being choosy with partners.
He added that instead of the government proposing to punish schools which do not implement sex education as cited in the Reproductive Health Law, there should be incentives instead.
"We should talk about the issue in a holistic manner. We are responsible for any change in mindset. I would like [people] to maintain decency and not be too loose, [kasi] iyan ang dahilan na may spread [ng HIV]," he said.
"Love is not routine, it is valuable," Bernardo said, adding that in the case of reproductive health, dangers lie not only in misunderstandings, but most of all in risky behavior.
Rights advocates meanwhile said that lawmakers' misunderstanding of scientific studies and other established findings is "dangerous" and "unfortunate," as it puts the well-being of Filipinos, especially the youth, at risk.
"When people have blinders, or beliefs that precede scientific basis, that is very dangerous not only in terms of propagating false claims but also to health," said reproductive health advocate Jean Enriquez of rights group coalition iDEFEND.
Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Carlos Conde said that false assertions such as Sotto’s are "highly irresponsible" and "puts young people at risk."
On Sotto’s claim that minors are not part of the HIV problem, Conde said the senator is "seriously and dangerously misinformed" as data from WHO, United Nations, DOH, and even an HRW study published in December show that HIV infection among minors is rising due to their lack of knowledge and access to tools that can help them avoid infection.