Buyer, Beware of That Condom

Wide disparities in the protection provided by different condoms against infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS have been revealed in laboratory testing at UCLA. The findings underscore the need for better controls, and better understanding by consumers.

Nothing in these findings should deter the national campaign to encourage the use of condoms for those unwilling to accept sexual abstinence or a monogamous relationship. For that population, the condom, imperfect as it is, remains much better than nothing. But, buyer, beware. Condoms should be chosen with care, and used with full understanding of their limitations.

Even the most conscientious consumer will be at a stark disadvantage, however, until the Food and Drug Administration broadens its controls. With most brands, there is no way to know the age of the condom, yet it is a fact that they lose reliability in a relatively short time. The FDA should require the date of manufacture on all condom packaging. Furthermore, the FDA should toughen its testing to include the methods used at UCLA and to disseminate the findings widely.

The Public Health Service is to be commended for its promotion of condoms as a defense against HIV infection. But the campaign has been flawed by a failure to make clear the limited safeguard they provide. The failure of the FDA to match the AIDS education campaign with better quality controls on condoms and with words of caution on condom packages is deplorable.

The increasing incidence of sexually transmitted disease and the high incidence of teen-age pregnancy dramatize the basic problem: Millions of people are engaging in sexual activity without the minimal protection afforded by condoms. As the AIDS campaign reinforces the importance of condoms, Washington will bear an increasing responsibility to assure that the product is safe.