Background: The male condom is the most effective barrier method available for protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV infection. There is an urgent need to develop and evaluate other prevention methods, such as the female condom. This study estimated the additional protection against STDs offered to sex workers by giving them the option of using the female condom when clients refused to use a male condom.
Methods: Sex establishments in four cities in Thailand were randomized into two study groups: one in which sex workers were instructed to use male condoms consistently (male condom group); and one in which sex workers had the option of using the female condom if clients refused or were not able to use male condoms (male/female condom group). Randomization was done by sex establishments, and not by individuals, to minimize sharing of female condoms across study groups. The proportion of unprotected sexual acts (defined as sexual acts in which condoms were not used, tore, or slipped in or out) and incidence rate of STDs (gonorrhoea, chlamydial infection, trichomoniasis and genital ulcer disease) were measured over a 24-week period and compared between the two study groups.
Findings: Results are available from 34 sex establishments (249 women) in the male/female condom group, and 37 sex establishments (255 women) in the male condom group. Condom use was very high in both groups (97.9 and 97.3 % of all sexual acts, respectively, P > 0.05). Male condom use was lower in the male/female condom group when compared with the male condom group (88.2 and 97.5%, respectively, P < 0.001). However, this reduction in male condom use was counterbalanced by the use of female condoms in 12.0% of all sexual acts in the male/female condom group, contributing to a 17% reduction in the proportion of unprotected sexual acts in this group when compared to the male condom group (5.9 versus 7.1%, respectively, P = 0.16). Female condom use was sustained over the entire study period. There was also a 24% reduction in the weighted geometric mean incidence rate of STDs in the sex establishments of the male/female condom group compared to the male condom group (2.81 versus 3.69 per 100 person-weeks, P = 0.18).