Last week, the story broke about teens who had invented a new condom that could detect sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and alert a partner by changing colors. Media outlets blared: “High School Students Come Up With Brilliant Way To Detect Sexually Transmitted Infections;” “Revolutionary Color Changing Condom Detects STDs;” and “Roses are red, condoms are blue … if you have syphilis;” just to name a few.
Despite the attention-grabbing nature of these headlines, don’t be fooled: They—and sometimes the pieces they accompanied—do not carry entirely accurate implications. This condom-and-STI-test-wrapped-in-one is not coming soon to a pharmacy near you. It’s an interesting idea, but that’s all it is: just an idea. It’s a thought with theory behind it on how it might work. It has not gotten past the concept stage. There is no operational prototype.
That does not mean we shouldn’t celebrate potential innovation—and the young people who dreamt it up. But in the process of doing so, most media outlets didn’t bother to question whether it was scientifically possible to mass produce such an item or whether it was actually the best way to test for STIs. Nor did they bother to point out that until an option like this can actually be purchased, people need to continue going to their clinic or doctor for STI screening and treatment. As a sexuality educator focused on preventing STIs, I feel this leaves a pretty gaping hole in the commentary.
First, the true story. Three young teenagers who attend the Isaac Newton Academy in London had an idea for a condom that would not just protect against STIs but detect them as well. Inspired by the high rates of STIs in the United Kingdom, the teens theorized that they could make a condom that would include a layer of antibodies that would recognize a virus or bacteria—such as chlamydia—and cause the condom to change color. They cleverly called the concept the S.T. EYE; entered it into the TeenTech Awards, which encourages teenagers to explore science, engineering, and technology; and won £1,000 (or $1,568). In October, they will go to Buckingham Palace to be honored along with the other teen winners. The students told MTV that they hoped to have a working prototype by then.
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In the interview with MTV, one of the teens explained more about how this condom could work. In a typical HIV test, he explained, “Antigens are attached to a dish—blood or seminal fluid is added and if HIV antibodies are present, they attach to the antigen.”
“With our concept,” he continued, “You would have to have the antibodies already attached to the latex of the condom, so once you add the fluid onto the latex, it would then trigger the reaction and cause a color change similar to the HIV test.”
In other words, in order for their idea to work, the teens would have to figure out a way to attach the antibodies to latex. It’s unclear whether this is feasible, but certainly no one has done it yet. William Smith, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD), told Rewire, “While I can applaud these smart young people’s ingenuity in approaching a serious sexual health issue, this is but a concept and one where I think the science would be elusive in making it happen.”
It’s also unclear how expensive such a device would be. Ward Cates, a researcher who has been studying condoms for years, applauded the idea as a way to promote testing among young people, but told CNN: “It would be quite sophisticated and my guess is quite costly.” He added that testing for more than one STI at a time might be cost-prohibitive. One of the benefits of condoms as a method of STI protection and pregnancy prevention has always been that they’re very inexpensive, and thus, widely available.
Even this condom were to be possible and affordable, I have some other practical concerns about the concept. It’s meant to detect STIs in both the male wearer and his partner, but that can’t happen until it comes in contact with blood, semen, or vaginal or cervical secretions. In most cases, this would mean the condom wouldn’t change colors until well into the sexual act—likely too late to provide added protection for that encounter.
After-the-fact knowledge isn’t entirely useless—the condom’s wearer or his partner would know moving forward that he or she had an STI, which could prompt them to seek treatment and also prevent the spread to any further partners. It is always good for people to be aware of their STI status, and we should keep thinking of innovative ideas to get people tested.
But I don’t think the heat of the moment is the best time to find out whether you or your partner has an STI. It’s a very vulnerable time to give or receive that kind of news, especially unexpectedly. At a minimum it could be painfully embarrassing; in the worst-case scenario, I fear it could provoke a potentially violent reaction.
In his interview with Rewire, Smith agreed that the timing would be all wrong. “STD testing should be a normal routine for sexually active people, not something that occurs after penile penetration. Does someone really want to discover their partner has an STD after sex begins? Frankly, I couldn’t think of a more ill-timed occasion for finding out your partner has gonorrhea or syphilis.”
These are things that I hope the teens who came up with this idea and anyone who wants to help them make it a reality would consider when moving forward with the concept. Perhaps it would be better to put the time and effort into creating an instant, at-home test kit that can test for a variety of STIs and can be used when you’re alone and haven’t yet initiated sexual activity. At-home kits exist, but most need to be sent to a lab for analysis. Instant results would be a huge step forward.
In the meantime, I think it’s important to remember that despite last week’s hype, we do not yet have a condom chameleon—but we do have good options for both condoms and STI testing.
Today’s condoms have been shown to provide protection against the very STIs we’re talking about, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV. As Smith noted, “The point of condoms are to prevent disease transmission, which they do incredibly well, not to test for it.”
As for the testing we already have, it’s really not that bad. Many organizations help to cover the cost nowadays in cases when insurance doesn’t. It can involve peeing in a cup, being dabbed with a cotton swab, or giving blood. Smith noted, “In their rush to discuss this new idea, too many media reports got STI testing itself wrong, describing it as overly invasive and a dreadful experience. It’s not. It’s easy, highly accessible, and utterly noninvasive in almost all cases.”
And best of all, you don’t get the results when you’re already naked, potentially in someone else’s bed.
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