Low-quality condoms flood Malawi

17th August 2007

Efforts to contain an upsurge in HIV infection rates in Malawi face a serious new setback with reports emerging that low-quality porous condoms have flooded the country's contraceptive market.

Medical expert Philip Banda said that water tests done on some 'cheap' condom brands revealed levels of permeability that sent shock waves through the country's health-care sector.

The development has raised fears that the fight against HIV could be set back as the use of condoms as a preventative tool has been widely promoted in Malawi. Banda said calls for the government to buy condom-testing machines had produced no results, leaving experts struggling to address the situation.

But Pharmacy, Medicines and Poisons board registrar Wynn Chalira said buying the testing equipment was difficult because of the high costs.

"We are working towards acquiring equipment to test condoms through theNational AIDS Commission (NAC). We have the capacity in terms of trainedpersonnel though," said Chalira.

He said the government depended on quality assurances from suppliers and groups such as Population Services International (PSI), which distributes Chishango condoms tested in Zimbabwe. Director general of Malawi's Bureau of Standards, Charles Malata-Chirwa, said that the department also lacked the capacity to test condoms and instead relied results from laboratories in South Africa. "We were depending on World Health Organization programme that sponsored some equipment but we are not sure where it is in the country," Malata-Chirwa said. "The risk for contracting HIV is there and we are trying to convince the Swedish government to include Malawi on the list of seven African countries in its plans to sponsor condom testing machines," he said. A report released by Avert-a UK-based HIV charity-indicates that almost one million of Malawi's 12.3 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2005. According to Avert, AIDS is a leading cause of death among adults in Malawi and a key factor contributing to the country's low life expectancy of just 38.5 years. Malawi has not had a national census since 2004, making it difficult for people working to tackle HIV to give clear statistics on the number of people affected or killed by the disease. A variety of NGOs have promoted the use of condoms in Malawi, including PSI and Banja La Mtsogolo (BLM), which have both carried out social marketing programmes to help make condoms more accessible. The Ministry of Health also distributes free condoms through various health centres but local markets are flooded with imported condoms that come with no quality guarantees. The rates of contraception use among married couples in Malawi increased from about 7% to 28% between 1992 and 2004. Condoms are a vital feature of the Abstinence, Being faithful and Correct condom use (ABC) formula touted worldwide as a way to prevent the spread of HIV.

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August 17 2007, Maurice Nkawihe, Malawi, The Correspondent

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