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Feds Promote Abstinence, Condoms to Combat AIDS

By John Schwartz
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

The federal government Tuesday announced an aggressive public-awareness campaign to promote the use of condoms and urge sexual abstinence in the face of the AIDS crisis.

"Every new HIV infection is a needless infection," said Donna E. Shalala, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services at a news conference called to unveil 13 new federally funded public-service ads for radio and television.

"We have the knowledge and the technology to prevent the sexual spread of HIV" and other sexually transmitted diseases, Shalala said. "What we have lacked until now is the political will, because we have been too timid to talk openly about the prevention tools at our disposal."

The new ads, commissioned by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and designed to appeal to a young audience, employ a variety of approaches.

Two of the most straightforward TV ads feature Denise Stokes, a 24-year-old Atlanta AIDS education counselor who is HIV-positive. Stokes looks into the screen and says "My message is simple. If you're going to have sex, a latex condom used consistently and correctly will prevent the spread of AIDS and other STDs."

Less stark is a TV spot in which a computer-animated packaged condom jumps out of a dresser drawer, to make itself available to a lovemaking couple (of unspecified sex) in a nearby bed. It hops across the room, tiptoes by a sleeping cat and then slips between the covers.

The voice-over narration states: "It would be nice if latex condoms were automatic. But since they're not, using them should be."

One of the radio ads features an endorsement by Anthony Kiedis of the rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers. "I wear one whenever I have sex," he says. "Not whenever it's convenient, or whenever my partner thinks of it. Every time. Look -- they're easy to open. (Sound of a package opening.) And a breeze to put on. And best of all, they stop the spread of HIV."

He closes the ad telling his audience, "Remember: you can be naked without being exposed."

Other less-explicit radio ads feature Martin Lawrence of the Fox sitcom "Martin" and Jason Alexander of NBC's "Seinfeld" show.

The ads, which cost approximately $800,000 to produce, include the number of a toll-free hotline (1-800-342-AIDS) to call for a free brochure on correct condom use and other information about AIDS.

Federal officials said the new program is aimed at those aged 18 to 25. Recent surveys show that 72 percent of all high-school seniors have had sexual intercourse; but a study of heterosexual men with multiple sex partners found that only 17 percent used condoms all of the time. Nearly one-quarter of all young adults have been infected with at least one STD. Shalala called that "a horrible number."

Some AIDS activists applauded the initiative. Daniel T. Bross, executive director of the AIDS Action Council, said that "in the past, the CDC has told people that the way to prevent AIDS is to `put your socks on.' Euphemisms such as these have limited value."

But Eric Ueland, spokesman for Senate Republican Policy Committee, said "Clinton promised this during the campaign. Unfortunately, this is a campaign promise that he kept." Ueland said "there's no correlation between more and more explicit advertisements and a slowing of the AIDS rate."

In a statement earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration said that "based on its own studies and published literature, FDA believes that latex condoms can be highly effective barriers to the transmission of HIV, and can also afford protection against many other sexually transmitted diseases."

Even though latex contains microscopic pores that in theory could allow viruses to penetrate, FDA testing showed that the possibility of such infection was vanishingly small.

Ultimately, Shalala said, brief television ads cannot win the war against AIDS. In fact, she said, they have "very little effect." The effort, she said, is part of a broader public-awareness initiative that includes encouraging community groups to sponsor local education programs.

Administration officials were careful to underscore the importance of abstinence, which Shalala called "the best way to protect yourself and others." Two of the nine television ads recommended refraining from sexual activity. In one, a young person -- apparently addressing a mate -- says "there's a time for us to be lovers -- and we'll wait till that time comes."