The Great Thailand Experiment: Why condoms shouldn't be used to fight AIDS

Author: Dr. Orestes Monzon

The Great Thailand Experiment: Why condoms shouldn't be used to fight AIDS

by Dr. Orestes Monzon

PHILIPPINES-A recent meeting of the ASEAN task force on AIDS noted the continued opposition of the region's conservative societies and resolved to promote more aggressively the use of condoms to stem the disease. It held up Thailand's efforts to promote the condom as a model for the rest of the region. "Everyone looks at what happened to Thailand," Reuter quoted an Indonesian official as saying. "They have a lot to share with us."

Presumably, the Philippine government, which has increasingly ignored the religious and cultural sensibilities of Filipinos by advocating the use of condoms and even by having some public school students instructed on how to use them, shares the view that Thailand is the best model to fight AIDS.

But is it really? Alas, no. Thailand is the region's worst AIDS case, with more than one million Thais projected to be infected with the HIV virus by the year 2000. Thailand's number-one fan, Indonesia, has the next worst case with around 750,000 cases by the end of the decade, followed by Vietnam with 300,000 cases. "Conservative" societies like the Philippines and Malaysia will have 90,000 and 30,000 cases, respectively.

For medical practitioners like me, the trumpeting of Thailand as the region's best AIDS-prevention performer is insane.

Widespread condom promotion

Thailand was ahead of the region in starting widespread condom promotion. As early as the 1970s, it had been distributing condoms to prostitutes, their clients, and just about everyone-including children with no knowledge of the sexual act. The popular Thai health minister earned the sobriquet "Mr. Condom" for his creative ways of promoting the "rubber" by demystifying it. Many of us still remember him blowing a condom and popping it like a balloon during a talk at the Asian Institute of Management. He even got a Magsaysay Award for his campaign.

But all the awards given him and the praises heaped on him by an adulatory media won't sugar-coat the fact that Thailand is losing the battle against AIDS. Thousands are dying in Thailand because of an irresponsible campaign that views illicit sex as alright just as long as it is "safe." Thousands of Filipinos will die too if the government persists in its "safe-sex" campaign.

The reason is simple. The condom is not fool-proof protection either against pregnancy or HIV. It has a failure rate of 12 to 18 percent in preventing pregnancy. Some studies even show a failure rate of up to 30 percent.

HIV: smaller than sperm

Presumably the failure rate for AIDS prevention is higher because HIV is much smaller than sperm. This fact was driven home during the uproar in 1992 when the Washington, D.C. government passed out condoms in the public schools in a campaign to make "sexual relations with HIV carriers safe."

C.M. Roland, head of the Polymer Properties Section of the Naval Research Laboratory on rubber, chemistry and technology, criticized the move. "Because the AIDS virus is in order of magnitude smaller than the sperm, the situation is actually worse," he said, explaining that the virus is only 0.1 micron in size.

Roland added: "Moreover, there exists direct evidence of voids in rubber-comprising condoms. Electron micrographs reveal voids of 5 microns in size (50 times larger than the virus), while fracture mechanics analyses, sensitive to the largest flaws present, suggest inherent flaws as large as 50 microns (500 times the size of the virus)."

Another reason why the condom fails is improper handling. Latex condoms can be damaged through exposure to air pollution, heat and light, ozone and humidity. In the sexual act itself, condom slippage and breakage rates are as high as 15 percent.

Ingredient for disaster

Many condom advocates, in and out of government, are now urging that children be educated in the use of condoms. In fact, there are reports that students in some public schools in Manila and Cebu are taking part in pilot projects by the education department to promote condom use. This is a sure ingredient for disaster, partly because it rests on the thin hope that young people will use condoms reliably.

Parents may well wonder whether children who sometimes forget closing the door behind them can ever remember to use a condom while in the heat of passion. And if they do, can they use it correctly?

Even the most "modern" of societies with long experience in contraception aren't exemplary in the proper use of condoms. Witness the United States, where leaders of value-free sex education and promotion of contraception and abortion among her young people have not exactly brought about a decreased incidence of teenage pregnancies, much less a decline in AIDS cases. For that matter, witness Thailand.

What seems to have been overlooked by our health planners is that massive condom promotion in Thailand goes hand-in-hand with the massive sex tourism which has underpinned that country's fantastic growth since the 1970s. Uncritical Filipinos always marvel at the Thais for not having any "hangups" about casual sex and point to their Buddhist religion-presumably open-minded, as contrasted with "medieval" Catholicism-as the cause. But as shown by the Thai government's aggressive promotion of condoms and prostitution, the reason is not cultural or religious, but commercial.

Kid-glove treatment of prostitution

Considering our government's kid-glove treatment of prostitution, we may not be too far behind Thailand. In fact, health workers are reputed to be working double-time to distribute condoms to prostitutes. Moreover, red-light districts have sprouted in Manila and Cebu, the prostitution dens operating with protection from corrupt police and local officers. These places are even built near schools without the authorities raising a finger.

Now, even the schools are slowly becoming part of the sex industry. With the gradual introduction of amoral sex-education modules that instruct children in the use of condoms and other contraceptives, with the bombardment of young people with "safe- sex" messages in the media, the government is condoning casual sex and (indirectly) mercantile prostitution.

Instead of teaching the young the right values and the proper regard for the sexual act, our government is using the schools and the media to cheapen sex. The beneficiary of all this is sex tourism. We don't know if this is part of the Ramos administration's "moral recovery program."

Thus, it behooves parents to establish their own "moral recovery program." They should not allow their children to fall prey to the government's "safe-sex" promotion, which is a mask for its alliance with white slavery.

The condom and other contraceptives are protection neither against "unwanted" pregnancy nor AIDS. The most effective protection is chastity, the proper regard for the sexual act, which only practicing Christian parents can teach their children. Good parents know that sex is neither "safe" nor "unsafe." It is either moral or immoral.

Dr. Orestes Monzon, the executive director of HLI Asia, is secretary general of the ASEAN Association of Radiology.

Taken from the January 1997 issue of "HLI Reports." To subscribe contact: HLI Reports, 4 Family Life, Front Royal, VA 22630, 540-635-7884, e-mail:, Web address: -------------------------------------------------------