DC handing out 500,000 female condoms to fight HIV

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Washington (CNN) -- On a Saturday at the Lamar Edward Salon, a small cluster of women watch a demonstration of a new product. Their giggles turn into growing interest. They learn the city is handing out free samples, but it's not shampoo or makeup products. Instead, the women can leave the salon with free female condoms tucked into their purses. Co-owner Gerald Armstrong said his salon is a perfect place for a frank discussion about safe sex. "We talk about beauty and we talk about hair and makeup and things to make them feel better," Armstrong said. "We should start talking about things that are helping them to live longer." Faced with an HIV infection rate six times higher than the national average, District of Columbia officials are launching an unorthodox campaign to halt the spread of the disease. They will hand out 500,000 female condoms at salons and community centers and offer informal training sessions to teach women how to use the little-known product. About 30 percent of people infected in Washington are women, and the numbers are growing, said Shannon Hader, senior deputy director of the district's Department of Health. HIV is particularly prevalent among African-Americans, and more black women between 25 and 34 will die from HIV/AIDS nationwide than from any other cause. "Women haven't really gotten the message that they're at risk," Hader said. "So we are very, very concerned with making sure that women in the district realize that HIV, in fact, is a woman's disease too." In the past, the higher price of female condoms kept them from reaching the ubiquity of the male condom. A newly released version, called FC2, is cheaper and designed to be more user-friendly, but the female condom is still relatively unknown. So when health officials in Washington decided to use a $500,000 grant from the M.A.C. AIDS Fund to distribute female condoms, they allocated a portion for marketing. "One of the things about female condoms is that they're a new product to most people," Hader said. "So like any new product, you can't expect it just to sell itself, just to take off on its own." The city trained outreach workers to demonstrate female condom use and then sent them into salons and onto college campuses to reach women where they already feel comfortable. Charlene Cotton became an outreach worker after she discovered she was HIV-positive six years ago. Now Cotton has begun giving demonstrations on the female condom. She says she's a convert. "It will give a woman a choice, freedom to use protection when a man feels as though that he doesn't have to use a condom," Cotton said. "And it gives her the opportunity to say, 'Well you don't have to use one, so I'll use one.' " She said demonstrators ask women to take home three female condoms in the hopes it will increase their familiarity with the product. "Try it three times," Cotton said. "First time, experiment [with] it, you feel it, try to apply it. Second time, apply it again. And the third time, use it with your friend. And if they're not convinced by the third time," then they probably won't continue to use it, she said. Before Katrina Byrd saw a demonstration she was not enthusiastic about using an "unattractive" female condom. But after another woman offered tips on female condom use and explained the condoms could prevent sexually transmitted diseases, Byrd said she would give them a chance. "I'll try it," Byrd said. "I'll see if through my own experience I'll like it." That's the response that prevention advocates are hoping to hear. "HIV and AIDS has declared war on our communities, particularly on African-American women. And I feel that we are justified as health care providers to look for every single avenue to fight back," said Dr. Celia Maxwell, director of the Women's Health Institute at Howard University. "For me the important thing would be that even one woman is spared from becoming infected."

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