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16 February 2006
Experts Disagree Over Non-Latex Condoms
by George Atkinson

A metastudy (a review of other studies) that found non-latex polyurethane condoms have higher breakage rates than latex condoms has experts disagreeing on just who should use the non-latex variety. Non-latex condoms are made of polyurethane, a thin material that is an effective conductor of body heat, thus preserving pleasurable sensations in sexual contact.

The review compared non-latex condoms to latex condoms in terms of contraceptive efficacy, breakage and slippage, safety and user preference. The findings indicate that non-latex condoms showed significantly higher rates of breakage than latex condoms during intercourse or withdrawal. Despite this, a substantial number of study participants reported a preference for non-latex condoms.

The author of the new review, Maria F. Gallo, agrees that non-latex condoms do not appear to be as robust as the latex variety, but she says the figures indicate that "pregnancy rates [are] similar to their latex comparisons." Gallo believes that non-latex condoms provide an "acceptable alternative" for persons who cannot, or will not, use latex condoms.

But Diane Grimley, of the Department of Health Behavior at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, was nonplussed with the findings, saying that pregnancy prevention and safety from sexually transmitted infections should be the primary concern of most condom users. "It is unclear why non-latex condoms would be endorsed for use with anyone other than those individuals with allergies or sensitivities to latex who are in a committed relationship," said Grimley. It is believed that latex allergies affect about 1 percent of the population.

The review looked at 11 previous trials that involved adult couples who were in monogamous, heterosexual relationships and not at risk for sexually transmitted diseases. Consequently, disease control was not evaluated, and the authors stated that the trials under review were limited to those studying the use of non-latex condoms during vaginal intercourse to prevent pregnancy. "The ability of the non-latex condoms to protect against the transmission of HIV or other sexually transmitted infections has not been established," they emphasized.

But Grimley believes that the higher number of breakages equates to a greater risk of infection. "Given that the non-latex male condom has a higher frequency of breakage and slippage, this suggests that this type of condom offers less protection from sexually transmitted infections than does the latex condom," she said. "I am extremely troubled by the message that is being sent out, which has the potential to be misconstrued among sexually active individuals, particularly adolescents. There is great concern that non-latex condoms be marketed to any one based on their personal preferences. Yes, sex feels better with a non-latex condom. However, for sexually active individuals who are not in the ideal, heterosexual situation, their personal preferences should be to use latex condoms to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections," she added.

Based on material from The Cochrane Library

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