Posted by: rhoban | July 1, 2010

Condom lab…

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I have a soft spot for lab workers (see this spread on lab workers in Zambia).  They toil away in artificially lit rooms making the work of docs and nurses possible (they actually do the tests that confirm the diagnoses) – meanwhile they get none of the credit.  So… another homage to lab workers!  But this time, it got onto the radio. 

Take a listen to today’s story:

A local condom brand from Malawi

So… I got wind of the condom testing lab at FHI and my interest was aroused. On top of my labworker geekery, I admit there was a bit of adolescent curiosity… you know… the giggle factor.  I needed to go see, hear and record the popping condoms.

In good reporter’s fashion, I pestered the poor press officer at FHI for months to let me come see it.  Finally, word came, just in time for this series.

I went there prepared giggle all the way through the tour, and to write lots of bad puns about the lab.  But lab director Eli Carter and FHI VP Gary West were professionalism all the way.

That's a BIG hole.

It seems that Carter is the man when it comes to condoms.  He’s helped write the international standards for condom safety and testing.  If you turn a box of condoms over, you’ll see something like : “This product meets international ISO 4074 standards.”    ISO is the International Standards Organization, and Carter leads the US delegation to the ISO.  He can recite the condom standards in part because he wrote most of them.

As we went through the tour, my desire to write bad puns about the condoms also shrank (OK… so I have had some puns in this blog post – all intended).  But seriously, what they do there is very serious stuff.  A faulty condom can put the user at risk for unwanted pregnancy and/ or a deadly disease.

And we’re talking billions of condoms, millions of people. FHI is the testing lab for US AID, and US AID administers all of the programs for PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief). Click here for distribution numbers.

It seems the humor around condoms is saved for advertising instead – sex sells, sure, but humor PLUS sex sells better.  A quick perusal of YouTube finds a plethora of commercials from all over the world.  But several of them illustrate points made in today’s story.

In this ad from Central America, taste is touted as one of the selling points of this brand of condom:

And in this ad from Kenya, people cheer when the man ‘uses’ the condom.  It’s a great selling point – use a condom and everyone is happy:

What I didn’t get to in the story is the other stuff they do at the FHI lab – for instance, they test for efficacy of anti-retroviral drugs and oral contraceptives.  Injectable contraceptives too – in particular, Depo Provera, one of the world’s most widely used injectable contraceptives.  Depo prevents pregnancy for about 3 months, and many women like it because it’s not a daily pill to be remembered… or noticed by a partner who might want more children than she wants.

Carter and industrial chemist David Jenkins also tell a story about how a rumor got started in Zambia that the Depo was contaminated with HIV.  Overnight, usage of the drug plummeted.  US AID asked the FHI lab to test batches of the Depo to see what was up. Eli Carter tells the story:

David Jenkins shows off a field-testing lab.

Our chemist and our virologist who works in another part of FHI, teamed up and they were able to simulate a false positive to show that they could replicate what had happened and prove that there was no contamination of the Depo-Provera.

And I think it also points out how much faith and trust the US AID puts in this lab… that they can call on us and we are able to respond here from North Carolina out to Zambia. We have a country office in Zambia and we worked with the Zambian authorities and facilitated all the preparations for this and monitor the situation…

One contraption David Jenkins showed for me was a portable lab they’ve acquired to field test for counterfeit drugs.  Counterfeits are a huge problem, especially for anti-malarial drugs.

The testing kit has everything needed to test pharmaceuticals in almost any location - even a rural area.

Use of a counterfeit anti-malarial drugs can 1) increase the risk you don’t get better and die and 2) increase the probability that malaria parasites become resistant to the disease.  That’s happening right now in SE Asia, and there’s a real need to nip it in the bud.  FHI is looking for money for a project that would send – yes, lab workers – out into rural areas to test the drugs people are using and make sure they actually contain active ingredient.

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