Editorial April 2013

Calling All Condom Creators


Today, the hotly debated topics in the world of contraception seem to be those of birth control and the morning after pill. However, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are going back to basics. As a part of the Grand Challenges in Global Health, the Gates Foundation is searching for a new spin on an old toy, that is, they are offering $100,000 to the person who can design a condom that will be more fun and more pleasurable than the current models.

Up until the introduction of oral contraceptives, condoms were the most commonly used method of birth control, and as the advertisements tort, are 99% effective at preventing pregnancy when used properly. Additionally, condoms have gained increasing attention with the outbreak of the AIDs epidemic.

Historians debate the appearance of the first condom. Some argue that condoms may have been used in ancient Egypt. Regardless of their origins, condoms have certainly become one of the most important tools of prevention in the field of sexual health. As the Gates Foundation looks to the future, let’s take a step back through the history of everyone’s favorite pocket accessory:

Antiquity: The oldest condom documented artistically comes from our very own France—cave paintings dating back 15,000 years have been found in a cave in Aquitaine.


16th century: The use of a linen sheath was introduced in Europe to protect against the teeming syphilis epidemic. During this century, spermicides were also introduced by soaking the linen condoms in a chemical solution.


18th century: Condoms begin to gain popularity, and a story about King Charles II of England leads to a bit of a condom conundrum. Legend says that the King was concerned about fathering illegitimate children and had a physician by the name of Dr. Condom who invented a precursor to the modern condom for Charles’ use in court life. This story has, for the most part, been dismissed as folklore, but it nonetheless illustrates the importance of condoms in this time period for all walks of life. Condoms also evolved in design during the 18th century with the use of animal intestines.


19th century: Animal intestines were exchanged for rubber with the introduction of Goodyear into the market. Condoms also began to experience controversy during this period as any advertisement was illegal and the U.S. Postal Service could also confiscate them.


20th century: The condom saw many different compositions with experimentation with new materials like rubber cement and ultimately latex. Latex condoms were first lubricated by Durex in 1957. However, condoms waned in popularity as other contraceptive methods were introduced. However, with the rise of HIV/AIDS in the 80s, condoms regained popularity.


Today: Condoms are available in what can seem like an overwhelming number of sizes, shapes, textures, flavors, brands, and colors. 15 billion condoms are currently produced per year worldwide for both family planning and HIV prevention. Despite this wide market, the condom faces unique challenges in both the developing and developed world. The demand for condoms in developing countries is currently about 15 percent higher than supply can provide, with projections only increasing.

 And in many developed countries, the condom faces a different challenge—underuse. As the Gates Foundation and others have discovered, one of the reasons that condoms are underused is the fact that many males find that they decrease sexual pleasure.

 So it’s left to you, future public health leaders. Revolutionary changes in condom design have propelled the contraceptive through history. What will be the next tick on the timeline of the condom? What will bring the condom into the 21st century? It’s up to our generation to come up with the next “rubber” or “latex.” Fellow classmates, I challenge you to put on your thinking caps, rise to the occasion, and show the world that yes, sex can be pleasurable and safe.


Bill Gates is begging you. Design the condom of the future here. 


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