Feature: Playing it safe

  • Focus
  • Sunday, 16 Feb 2020

International Condom Day was on Feb 13, a day before Valentine’s Day. With sex being the main way of HIV transmission, it’s time we take a harder look at using condoms.

IT’S a light-hearted event to celebrate the all famous contraceptive – the condom.

But International Condom Day carries a serious message, to promote the importance of safe sex and its role in preventing diseases – including HIV.

Falling on Feb 13, a day before Valentine’s Day, it is a reminder for people to slip on protection before getting amorous.

However, there is a need to encourage more to practise safe sex in Malaysia.

Statistics show that 94% of HIV cases were transmitted through sexual relations in 2018.

It was reported that men who have sex with men made up 57% of the number, while heterosexual transmissions accounted for 37% of the cases.

Sunday Star also reported that most new HIV transmissions are among millennials in their 20s.

As it turns out, some key populations – those at high risk of HIV infections – have low condom usage, based on data from the Health Ministry’s Country Progress Report on HIV/AIDS 2019.

Only 25.8% of people who inject drugs used a condom with their most recent sex partner in 2017.

Men who have sex with men recorded 65.4% of condom usage, compared to the transgender community (83.3%) and female sex workers (83.5%)

“There is a need to mitigate sexual transmission of HIV among key populations by focusing on changes of risky behaviour.

“This includes more persistent condom usage and reducing substance abuse prior to sex, ” read the report.

It’s also worrying that HIV cases are increasing among youths aged 13 to 29 since 2009 and this upward trend is due to risky behaviours.

This includes low rates of condom use, higher usage of substance abuse, low rates of testing and having more than one sexual partner.

Ironically, Malaysia is the biggest exporter of condoms globally, with homegrown Karex Bhd being the largest condom maker in the world.

The company’s chief executive officer Goh Miah Kiat says youths today are generally lax about the fear of HIV, unlike those who have gone through the 1980s and 1990s when being infected was seen as a death sentence.

“There is still no cure for HIV and AIDS but advanced treatments are available today.

“So, people become less vigilant. It’s sad that youths make up most of the new infections, ” he adds.

On whether condoms are still the preferred method of protection, Goh’s answer is yes and no.

“People are aware that condoms are out there but they don’t truly understand the most effective way of how it should be used.

“Sex education in our country is still insufficient, ” he says.

And while a number of Malaysians are aware about practising safe sex, Goh says there are some who believe the worst will never happen to them.

“They only panic when they know someone close enough to them is infected.

“But HIV and AIDS is a disease that doesn’t recognise race, religion or sexual orientation, ” he points out.

On the bright side, Goh notices that it is less of a taboo now for people, including youths, to buy condoms from stores.

“People are becoming more open. Last time, people packed condoms in newspapers or black bags. But now, it is no different than buying chewing gum, ” he says.

He says International Condom Day is a reminder for people to practise safe sex, especially ahead of Valentine’s Day the next day.

The event was created by the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a non-profit organisation which promotes HIV prevention and healthcare.

Top condom maker

While it is the world’s largest condom maker, Karex actually started as a family business in Johor by Goh’s grandfather in 1988.

Growing up in a rubber factory, Goh used to complain about the smell, but his grandfather told him “that is the smell of money”.

As the family ventured into making condoms, the company grew into what it is today.

Karex produces about five billion condoms every year, with operations across the United States, United Kingdom, Malaysia and Thailand.

Its current clientele consists of governments, NGOs, brand owners and retailers in over 130 countries.

Goh reveals that Malaysians prefer ultra thin condoms, indicating that pleasure is a priority.

“Malaysian users love new stuff, and there’s definitely a race towards who can produce a thinner product, ” he says.

Most also generally don’t want the condom to smell of rubber.

“We look into the scent, colour, texture and shape of our products. It is similar to jeans, where you have different cuttings like slim fits or the more baggy types.

“Men don’t come in one size and shape either, ” Goh says.

Karex is also the company that produces boldly flavoured condoms – including durian, nasi lemak, teh tarik and rendang.

And Malaysians can expect more funky, jaw-dropping local flavours to emerge.

“Some have suggested that we make flavours like cempedak, nangka and even char kway teow and chicken rice.

“Well, maybe, ” he teases.

Among the local flavours so far, he says the nasi lemak product has been the most popular and the most quoted in the press.

But while the colourful flavours have created plenty of buzz, Goh says the whole idea behind it is to reduce the stigma of using condoms.

“To me, the biggest problem behind low condom usage is its stigma.

“People don’t use it because they are afraid of buying it, and are even afraid of talking about it.

“But if we create something weird and bold, it would create conversation – a conversation you wouldn’t normally have with your colleague, for example.

“People wouldn’t talk about their experience using condoms with a colleague, but if you had a nasi lemak flavoured condom, you might ask if they have tried or heard about it.

“That was the intent, not so much selling the product but a community message, ” Goh illustrates.

At the end of the day, Goh says condoms are nothing to be afraid of.

“If it is used properly, it will save a life and not give a life, ” he adds.

Reaching out

With the inconsistent condom usage among key populations, especially youths, more needs to be done in educating them to make informed decisions.

To reach out to them more effectively, the Health Ministry is exploring the use social media to promote its Harm Reduction Programmes to such groups.

“With this new approach, we hope to reach target populations effectively and therefore help us mitigate transmissions of HIV and STI (sexually transmitted diseases), ” says Deputy Health director-general (Public Health) Datuk Dr Chong Chee Kheong.

The ministry, through its HIV/STI/Hepatitis C Sector, collaborated with the Malaysian AIDS Council to develop a prevention package that includes the Harm Reduction Programme to address multiple risk factors.

Such factors include “chemsex”, which refers to the use of drugs just before sex.

This leads to a higher frequency of unprotected sex, and a higher HIV prevalence.

“For people who inject drugs, a low rate of condom use is due to their addiction rather than sexual activities, ” Dr Chong adds.

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