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How the media fell for an 'anti-Zika' condom stunt

A marketing ploy that could put people at risk

Ansell

When Australia's athletes travel to Rio for the Olympics this summer, they'll be equipped with "anti-Zika condoms" — or at least that's how Reuters, Gizmodo, Fusion, and Jezebel portrayed condoms made through a collaboration between the companies Starpharma and Ansell. Here’s the thing: all condoms protect against Zika infection when used correctly. But the bigger question is this: in an age where disease outbreaks are becoming commonplace, why didn't journalists verify this claim before spreading information that could make their audience feel like the average condom isn't protective enough?

People might end up questioning the reliability of other condoms

Earlier this week, Starpharma announced in a press release that it would supply condoms made by Ansell and lubricated with their antimicrobial gel "VivaGel Active" to Australian athletes during the next Olympic games. This story was then picked up by a number of news outlets. And while some did a good job of clarifying that any condom protects against the Zika virus, none of the stories above included this very important bit of information. This might not seem like a big deal, but remember this: women in Brazil have trouble accessing both abortion services and hormonal contraception. So, publishing stories that could cause some to question the reliability of the free condoms that authorities have been distributing in Brazil isn't just shameful — it's reckless.

There’s no treatment or vaccine for the Zika virus, which is usually transmitted through mosquito bites but can also be acquired through sexual contact. But for most people, it’s relatively harmless. Only about one in five infected persons actually experience symptoms, which resemble the flu and go away within a week. So until recently, scientists haven't paid much attention to Zika, even though it was discovered in 1947.

That changed in early 2015, when an outbreak of the virus in Brazil was followed by a steep increase in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads. In the following months, the link between these birth defects and Zika was confirmed. As a result, the CDC has recommended that people who travel to or live in areas with Zika use condoms when they have sex with men. Still, the possibility of becoming infected with Zika through sex has caused quite a bit of alarm. So, it's no surprise that companies would capitalize on that fear. What's disappointing is how many outlets participated in this marketing ploy without providing their audience with the necessary context — that is, that all condoms are Zika-resistant.

"Any latex condom will protect from Zika virus infection."

"Any latex condom will protect from Zika virus infection. This is just some Zika virus hype…at least in my humble opinion!" says Andrew Pekosz, an immunologist at Johns Hopkins University who studies the virus. "It's a marketing ploy by Starpharma," says Jeffrey Klausner, public health expert at UCLA. "Any condom will prevent transmission of any virus. Remember condoms can hold air or water — molecules that are much, much smaller than viruses."

The condoms that the Australian athletes will receive do incorporate one additional protective barrier — an antimicrobial gel made by Starpharma that’s designed to kill common STIs. But it’s not clear that these types of gels make a condom any more effective than conventional ones, says Benjamin Haynes, a spokesperson for the CDC. "There is no evidence that the addition of an anti-infective alters the effectiveness of condoms, whether it improves them or makes them less effective." (Haynes also told me that the CDC "knows nothing about the Australian product.") This was supported by Lee Norman, an intelligence officer in disaster medicine planning in the United States Army National Guard. "As long as the chemical doesn't degrade the integrity of the condom, then this new one is probably as effective as those that don't have it," he says. "There is no evidence to advocate for its adoption over normal, proven condoms."

"No evidence to advocate for its adoption over normal, proven condoms"

I emailed Starpharma to ask if it had published data on the effectiveness of its gel against the Zika virus. A representative named Rebecca Wilson told me that Starpharma has concluded a "pre-clinical" study that "showed that VivaGel active, astodrimer sodium, had potent antiviral activity against the Zika virus in laboratory studies." Translation: the company hasn’t conducted tests in humans. In a follow-up email, I asked Wilson for a second time if the results of that study had been published in a peer-reviewed journal; I haven't yet heard back.

The condoms that Australia’s athletes will receive are nothing special, so it's unclear why the Australian Olympics committee decided to work with Starpharma specifically. I emailed the AOC and asked if the committee thinks these condoms are more effective against zika than other condoms; it has yet to respond. In Starpharma's press release, the Chef de Mission of the 2016 Australian Olympic Team, Kitty Chiller, is quoted as saying that "the health and wellbeing of the Team comes first and our association with Starpharma will provide extra protection for everyone on the Team, and is a common sense approach to a very serious problem we are facing in Rio."

The same bad reporting that we saw during the Ebola epidemic

For Starpharma and Ansell, capitalizing on people's fear by advertising a product as Zika-proof is good for business. And we've seen this before. During the Ebola epidemic, scammers started selling $20 "Ebola Virus Protection Kit" and powders that could supposedly "fight" the virus. The one difference here is that these condoms might actually work. Otherwise, it's just more of the same bad reporting that we saw throughout the Ebola epidemic.

If you really think about it, screwing up such a simple story doesn't bode well for the future of disease coverage. As climate change marches on, outbreaks of viruses like Ebola, Chikungunya, and Zika will keep happening. And now, more than ever, the media has a responsibility not only to report on these outbreaks but also to prevent the spread of potentially harmful misinformation.