March 8, 2010 -- At first glance, the Ceylor Hotshot condom might appear similar to others in the market.
But this smaller-sized condom, thus far marketed only in Switzerland, is designed to deal with the specific problem of teenage pregnancy and the spread of disease among boys as young as 14.
Nysse Norballe, a spokeswoman for Swiss condom manufacturer Lamprecht AG, said the company was approached by the AIDS awareness organization AIDS-Hilfe Switzerland with the idea to produce and market a condom for a younger age group.
The organization "had carried out many studies which found that a lot of young people -- i.e. teenagers -- had trouble finding a suitably sized condom," she said. "They needed a smaller-sized condom and asked us if we could manufacture it."
Part of the reason for the development of the new condom, she added, was a survey performed by the German magazine Bravo. Among 13,000 respondents age 14 to 20, the magazine reported, 25 percent of the them said standard condoms were too big.
"Meanwhile, in Switzerland last year, a 13-year-old girl, Ramona, gave birth, becoming the youngest mother in the country," Norballe said. "The father of her child was 14 at the time and when asked about it, he said, 'We did use a condom, but it slipped off.' So there's been ongoing concern recently about condom sizes here."
The manufacturers do not expect that the move will be controversy-free, a point with which sexual health experts in the United States agreed. Still, some experts said that such an approach may not be a bad idea when it comes to promoting safe sex among teens.
"We know that young men are becoming sexually active as young as 14 and earlier, and we know that teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and HIV are major problems around the world," said Eli Coleman, chair in Sexual Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School's Program in Human Sexuality in Minneapolis.
Providing condoms that are comfortable and pleasurable to teens will encourage their use and, in turn, decrease rates of unintended pregnancy and disease, he said.
Some Support Kid Condoms; Others Worry
"Just as we vaccinate young girls against HPV, we need to arm youth with whatever means that are scientifically sound to protect their health and the health or their partners," Coleman said. "This approach should be adopted around the world."
But sexuality expert Dr. David Greenfield, clinical director of the Healing Center in West Hartford, Conn., said the decision to market such condoms to younger users necessitates a "delicate balance" between public health and moral issues and should be approached with caution.
"[I] think this idea might have some merit, although I question whether this plan will increase condom use in this age group, as I am not sure the main reason they are avoiding condom use is because they don't fit well," he said.
And Bill Albert, chief program officer of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, expressed skepticism that providing smaller-sized condoms for this age group would solve the problem of teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs.
"It is challenging enough to convince single adults in their 20s to use contraception consistently, even those who say they don't want to get pregnant or cause a pregnancy," he said. "Why should we think that we would have better luck with those in grammar and middle school?
"Messages about abstinence and the value of delaying sexual activity should be presented as options one through 50 for these children."
Protection or Encouragement?
The new condoms are also certain to reinvigorate debate about whether condoms aimed at kids will help teens or simply encourage them to have sex.
Albert said teen sex is already a growing problem.
"Even though the overwhelming majority of teen pregnancies and births are to older teens, the unfortunate truth is that one in seven young people in the U.S. has sex before their 15th birthday," Albert said.
"What are we to do with a 13-year-old who is having sex? I'm not at all sure what the answer is, but I'm confident that the answer is not going to be found in a marketing effort promoting extra small condoms for children."
Norballe disagreed with the idea that the new condoms would increase rates of teen sex.
"We are not advocating that young people have sex," Norballe said. "But you cannot prevent young people from having sex. Whether our condom is on the market or not, young people will have sex. At least our condom will create some awareness about protecting oneself."
Minnesota's Coleman, for one, said that the availability of condoms in European countries has not been shown to increase teen sex.
"The myth is that it will increase earlier sexual activity, but the data simply does not support this," Coleman said. "In countries with comprehensive sexuality education and access to sexual and reproductive health services, they have lower incidence of teen pregnancy, abortion, and sexually transmitted infections."
Greenfield of the Healing Center said such a plan must also include an educational component.
"The fact is that, unfortunately, kids under 18 are having sexual intercourse," Greenfield said. "They probably shouldn't, and we should keep educating them on the problems with such a decision, but this must be done in combination with a realistic plan to address the current realities of sexual behavior in our youth."
Will U.S. Have Kid-Sized Condoms, Too?
For now, Norballe said, the company has no plans to introduce the condoms into the United States or United Kingdom markets.
"If our plans change, we would focus on Europe and England, not on the U.S.," Norballe said.
Thus far, it does not appear that U.S. manufacturers are planning similar offerings. Jim Daniels, vice president of marketing for Trojan Brand Condoms, would not comment on whether his company would consider developing such a product, and added that he could not speak directly to the Hotshot condom.
But he said that safe sex among teens is an increasingly important issue, and innovations in contraception are an important tool.
"Ensuring sexually active people engage in safe sex is critical to our nation's overall sexual health," Daniels said. "In this country, about one in four teen girls has a [sexually transmitted disease], and about 750,000 teens become pregnant every year. To address these sobering statistics, we must provide comprehensive, fact-based sexual health education that includes condoms to all sexually active individuals."
Still, some believe that those holding out for a teen-sized condom in the United States could be in for a long wait.
"If there is a percentage less than zero, that is the chance that such an approach would be adopted in the United States," Albert said.
Ammu Kannampilly contributed to this report.