Chile Subsidizes Cheap Condoms in Poor Communities

The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson (C) gestures during a visit to a home for children with HIV/AIDS in Santiago, Chile, on Feb. 3. (Photo: David Lillo / AFP-Getty Images)

Chile's Ministry of Health plans to expand a pilot program that makes condoms cheaper and easier to access in Santiago's "most vulnerable" neighborhoods.

The program — dubbed the Condom Social Marketing Project — was launched in January and provides subsidized condoms in non-traditional outlets. A three pack box of the "Yosi" condoms were made available for purchase in street markets, news kiosks, and bottle shops, and the 750 peso price tag ($1.40) is nearly 50 percent less that condoms sold in pharmacies.

"The idea from the beginning was to launch a pilot program and then take it to other neighborhoods," said Ministry of Health official Lidia Amarales. "Young people are often afraid to buy condoms in a pharmacy, and the program is meant to make condoms more accessible."

Amarales said the project was currently being evaluated in western parts of Santiago and would be expanded to more neighborhoods in March.

Chile's center-left government has made easier access to contraception a centerpiece of its agenda, and the policies have generated heated controversy in Chile's more conservative sectors. President Michelle Bachelet was widely criticized last year for making the morning after pill available in clinics nationwide.

In November, Chile's government provoked the ire of the Catholic Church and several conservative political parties when it launched a campaign to reduce the high levels of HIV/AIDS infection among Chile's youth.

The $1 million advertising campaign included two television advertisements, three radio spots, and three posters that were plastered all over the country. Featuring young school-aged girls talking about condoms, a pizza delivery man and his girlfriend, a young gay couple, and a group of young skaters, the campaign's central message urged viewers to take responsibility for their own lives and to protect their partners, using condoms in any sexual relations.

The Health Ministry said it was targeting younger Chileans because sexually transmitted diseases primarily affect Chileans between the age of 20 and 29. Most now contracting HIV become infected before 24 years of age.

Chileans currently exhibit extremely low rates of condom use. According to a 2004 government survey, only 35.4 percent of young people reported using a condom during their first sexual experience, which was a significant improvement from 1998 when the rate was 13.5 percent. Fifty-two percent reported never using a condom.

To date, 14,820 Chileans have officially reported HIV infection, with the majority of them asymptomatic. Health officials said the disease could be affecting as many as 50,000 persons, since many infected with the virus are unaware of their condition.

The disease has increased 200 percent in the past 20 years, and there are now a reported ten cases for every 100,000 residents. "Even though new infections are increasing, the acceleration of the spread is slowing down," said Consida Director Edith Ortiz. "At the beginning of the '90s, we thought that we were going to see explosive growth in new infections, but the pace has slowed down … Since 1996, heterosexual transmission has increased, while homosexual transmission has stayed at stable levels."

Despite the rise in new infections, Chile has made progress in the fight against HIV. AIDS deaths peaked in 2001, and the percentage of those diagnosed with AIDS who die within five years has shrunk by two-thirds.

HIV/AIDS medications are currently provided free of charge by Chile's state Universal Access and Explicit Guarantees (AUGE) healthcare system.

UNAIDS coordinator for Chile Laurent Zessler warned youth against letting their guard down in the face of progress that has been made in treating HIV/AIDS. "They should be alert," he said. "Chilean youth have to reform their sexuality and not trust in the treatments that exist for the disease."

Since the AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s, the disease has killed 5,043 Chileans and tens of millions around the world.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Nathan Crooks.