First-Ever Condom Summit Held at Fenway Health

by Michelle Lim

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday July 8, 2013

In an effort to promote condom use, Victory Programs has partnered with Fenway Health to reignite the guerilla condom distribution movement through the 2013 Condom Summit: Condoms as Community Care. It is the first of what both organizations hope will become an annual gathering of experts in the fields of healthcare, HIV prevention, education and distribution to reinvent the ways that new generations of sexually active teens and adults are educated about HIV and condom use.

"We have to develop some new partnerships and stakeholders so that this is a community issue and not an issue for gay men or injection drug users -- that it's about our lives, our longevity, our survival, our heritage and it's about care," said Barry Callis, prevention director for the Office of HIV/AIDS, Bureau of Infectious Diseases.

In the changing sexual landscape of a post-HIV/AIDS generation where the HIV threat has been tempered by the introduction of drugs like Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), sex without a condom is no longer taboo, barebacking is a rising trend and 55 percent of the kids in Boston Public Schools are sexually active with 22 percent of them having had four or more partners already, the reintroduction of condom use has become a top priority for health providers, manufacturers and educators.

But in a society beleaguered by condom fatigue, condom anger and an uninformed response to the threat of HIV, it becomes more crucial than ever to rethink the ways in which these obstacles can be overcome. Hence the Condom Summit.

On June 26, representatives from various organizations including the AIDS Action Committee, National Community of Women Living with HIV in Uganda, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's Bureau of Infectious Diseases, Boston Public Health Commission, Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), the Hispanic Black Gay Coalition (HBGC) and Connect 2 Protect gathered at the Fenway Institute at Fenway Health for a full-day conference where panelists and attendees explored Massachusetts' current efforts to communicate the importance of condom use in HIV prevention, discuss innovative ways to increase community involvement, and address funding issues.

Victory Program's President and Executive Director Jonathan Scott opened the discussion by encouraging participants to think boldly in a time where in Boston, 32 years after the first AIDS case was reported, 70 million people are now infected and 35 million people have died of AIDS.

Callis was quick to point out that in the early days of the epidemic it was much easier to shock and stir a reaction from people.

"Having a condom bowl was provocative to put up at one point in public and some of those things became streamlined and as they became streamlined things became a little too quiet," said Callis.

Davin Wedel, founder and president of Global Protection Corp and One Condoms, talked about the difficulties of even getting businesses to put out condoms due to condom fatigue.

"Back in the late '80s, early '90s, you could find condoms in every gay bar," said Wedel. "And then it changed with condom fatigue. They're businesses and if their clients are bummed out by condoms, they didn't want to put condoms at the bar anymore. We found that we couldn't give them condoms to put at the bar. They wouldn't be willing to put them out anymore."

One Condoms has embraced the challenge of overcoming that barrier. Engaging the customer is at the forefront of their campaign to connect the condom to popular culture and relevant to the things today's generation cares about.

"The more people are involved, the more invested they are in condoms as an idea and the more that is true, the more likely they are to use it," said Wedel.

Whereas for a generation or two ago, HIV was a major threat, today's generation is largely disinterested and uneducated about the epidemic. The dichotomy is a polarizing force between older and younger gays, with the feeling that, "Well, for you guys it was like an atomic bomb went off in your midst, but for us in our lives it's just been this annoying buzz this whole time."

Boston Public Schools Work to Fight HIV and Increase Condom Use

In Boston Public Schools, one-third of sexually active students said they did not use a condom. And 27 percent of these admitted they had been taught nothing about how to prevent HIV infections.

To fight these dour statistics, officials passed a policy approving mandatory condom distribution in all Boston Public High Schools. Experts were optimistic about the initial effort, but warned that to be effective, the policy must be implemented.

"Even though we passed this policy, what we need you to do as a community and people who care about other people is to make sure that the schools do what they said they would do," said Barbara Cohen, former Health and Education Program Director for Boston Public School's Health and Wellness Department. "The policy has been passed, but I've seen so many policies passed and shoved in a notebook and set aside."

A disinterested public is not the only obstacle that besets healthcare providers and educators. Lack of funding has also become a major setback. The introduction of the National HIV/AIDS strategy, while a profoundly important mobilizing tool, has also had a huge impact on the nation, especially the state of Massachusetts. The National AIDS Strategy coincided very closely with the release of a different amount of funding to each state across the country and Massachusetts did not do very well in that because it has done an excellent job of driving down new infections. This means that the state is losing 48 percent of its federal money for prevention by 2015.

Callis said that there was a great deal of tension between the important strategy document, and the fact that the fight was losing money it needed to renew the commitment to education and providing condoms.

"How do we maximize what money's available, the use of condoms that we can purchase, how can we maximize a different kind of intentionality around distribution, including proper use, storage and disposal of condoms? Organizations have been directly impacted by that and maybe will continue to be impacted by that loss of funding," said Callis.

Gladys Bamboola, medical case manager at Boston Medical Center's Center for Infectious Diseases, reinforced the need to focus on doing more for the individual than simply racking up numbers to boost funding.

"Our founders are demanding numbers," said Bamboola. "They're asking how many have you seen today? But we need to look at the comprehensive part of it. Instead of looking at how many we have seen we need to consider how much we've given one individual."

Overall, however, many agreed that although it is good to have plans, strategies and policies in place, funding and manpower would continue to be crucial components to fighting HIV/AIDS.

"That's an amazing mobilizing force to use, to begin to differently plan and initiate and create some ownership," said Callas. "But there's not going to be enough money to do this ourselves. There's not going to be enough person power, and we have to create a different kind of movement and ownership about community health and part of that is making sure that people stay alive and uninfected."