AIDS activists say they realized there was a problem after people came to them panicked because government-distributed condoms broke during intercourse. Some of them were HIV positive.
South Africa is now recalling 1.35 million condoms given away last month at celebrations for the ruling party's 100 year anniversary. But even if all the reportedly faulty condoms are returned or tossed out, the problem is not over: There could be lingering damage to the campaign to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country with the world's highest number of victims.
"This kind of thing really compromises the hard-earned confidence in efforts to improve HIV prevention," said Dr. Kevin Kelly. The director of the Centre for AIDS Development, Research, and Evaluation based in Johannesburg said condoms, when properly used, are the best tool available to stem the spread of the disease.
"We are finding that one of the most important elements of HIV prevention is the increasing use of condoms," Kelly said.
Kelly fears another condom recall in the country will jeopardize gains to convince people they are a safe and effective way to protect themselves and others. In 2007 and 2008 the government recalled millions of defective condoms that were also distributed under its free "Choice" brand. Many people became suspicious of the government brand, and sales of private brands like Durex, Contempo, and Lifestyle increased. Kelly is concerned about the many other people who can't pay, won't pay, or don't want to be seen purchasing condoms in stores. He believes the government's free condom distribution plays an important role in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but it won't be as effective if people don't use them because they don't trust them.
AIDS is the leading cause of death in South Africa where more than 5 million people-about 10 percent of the population-are HIV positive. For many years the country was accused of ignoring the problem, but it has stepped up prevention and treatment efforts in the last couple of years. Since 2009, the number of people receiving life-saving anti-retroviral drugs has doubled, and the government now distributes more than 400 million free condoms each year.