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June 30, 2006

Would You Bet Your Life on a 30% Failure?

If your birth control pill only worked 70% of the time, would you consider that successful? Apparently, some folks would.

A new study on condom effectiveness in protecting against the cancer-causing human papilloma virus has shown a discrediting 30% failure rate. The report, however, is being praised as a breakthrough for its claim that condom use offers “significant” protection against the virus.

The study relied on the journals of 82 female university students who kept daily records of their sexual behaviour, and found that 70% of the women, who reported 100% consistent condom use, were virus-free at the end of three years.

The Illinois Family Institute criticized news reports of the study as misleading and inaccurate, saying the 30 per cent failure rate was far more important information than the limited success of the study.

“In fact, the study reports that 12 out of 42 women whose partners always used condoms did get HPV. Thus, 28.5% of the women got HPV even with 100% condom use,” said William Beckman, executive director of Illinois Right to Life Committee.

“Why isn’t the fact that condoms, even under ideal usage conditions, failed 28.5% of the time the real story here? Who would consider this an acceptable failure rate when dealing with a cancer-causing virus?”

Well yeah, 70% is significant, but which is better; being sexually active and having a 30% chance of killing yourself with an STD, or being abstinent with a 0% chance? The folks trumpeting this study are, of course, highlighting the fact that condom's are better than nothing. But even considering just that comparison, is 30% worth your life? If not, then this is not a "success"; it's a dismal failure.

Maybe with a better sampling, the results might be different.

Furthermore, Beckman points out, the study itself is inconclusive since it relies on the self-reporting of just 82 university-aged women.

“For those who are still impressed by the “70% less” infection rate, remember that with only 82 women, the sample size is so small that the results have very little statistical significance.”

So what we have is a fatally flawed study, praised by people who consider it's 30% failure rate a success. Here's an example.
Among those applauding the report was Markus Steiner of Family Health International in Research Triangle Park, NC, who co-wrote an accompanying commentary. He told the New Scientist that the research should put an end to calls for FDA warnings against condom failures in protecting against HPV, by groups advocating abstinence.

“We’re hoping the findings of the paper will dissipate this pressure,” he said.

I doubt Mr. Steiner would accept a 30% failure rate in many other, non-life-threatening parts of his life, but he's more than willing to do what he can to give others a false sense of security. Is this what his company considers family health?

Posted by Doug at June 30, 2006 01:32 PM

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being abstinent with a 0% chance?

You could get married to someone with an HPV.

Posted by: jpe at July 3, 2006 07:50 PM

But then you would probably not be abstinent, would you?

Yeah, I know what you're getting at. However, the study was of university students. I'm guessing that most to all of them weren't married, and basically this is what the folks calling this study a victory are trying to keep mainstream; sexual relations outside of marriage, with condoms as the savior and protector of that lifestyle.

You're right, nothing is for sure. But imagine how much the STD rate would plummet should abstinence before marriage be the mainstream again. Instead kids are getting sold a bill of goods.

Posted by: Doug Payton at July 3, 2006 08:48 PM

If you marry someone with an HPV, you either know that fact or you don't. If you know it, how does 30% sound? I don't think so. If you don't know it, how does 30% sound. Even worse.

Posted by: bruce at July 5, 2006 04:40 PM