Don't spread falsehoods, I said to the editor
After uploading the previous article about how the abstinence fanatics
distort research information (see Condoms only 85
percent effective - not true!), I decided to write directly to the
editors of 'Today' and the Straits Times, along the same lines.
It is possible that these editors are not familiar with the science data, and will simply take letters written by these fanatics at face value. They may see the debate as one of differing opinions.
I wanted to highlight to them that it isn't so. One side is trying to mislead by distorting the research information. The effect of their doing so is to lead people to consider condoms as useless, so that even if they don't subscribe to abstinence, they still do without condoms.
Editors and journalists have a responsibility. Now that I have written to them, I hope they realise they cannot claim ignorance and innocence if they continue to help disseminate such dangerous falsehoods.
The letter was addressed to the editor of 'Today', since the examples I cited were from his paper. I marked an open copy to the Forum editor of the Straits Times.
* * * * *
7 December 2004, by email
NOT FOR PUBLICATION
Dear Mr Editor,
I wish to draw your attention to an issue of press responsibility. You've been carrying certain letters in your pages that contain, in my view deliberately, misleading information. You are thus unwittingly helping to disseminate disinformation.
That matter at hand involves the claim that condoms are "only 85 percent effective".
For instance, Tan Thuan Seng, President of the Christian fundamentalist group Focus on Family, said in his letter that was published in Today newspaper, 16 Nov 2004, "At best, condoms only provide 85-90 per cent protection against HIV/Aids."
Hui Keem Peng of the Catholic Medical Guild, said in a letter published 4 Dec 2004, said that "In a 2001 report by the United States' National Institute for Health, the condom was not found to be effective in preventing the transmission of a number of STIs. In the area of HIV prevention, it was found to be only 85 per cent effective and only if used consistently and correctly."
The effect of such statements is to make the public think that if one uses a condom one has only 85% protection against HIV infection. The implication is that 15% of the time, (1 instance of sex out of 7) you will get infected.
Their intention is to scare people away from using condoms, towards their message of abstinence.
Unfortunately, this claim is a complete mockery of the National Institute for Health Report (2001) which they cited for support. I advise you to read that report yourself at www.niaid.nih.gov/dmid/stds/condomreport.pdf
The report findings were based on a meta-analysis done by Davis and Weller, who reviewed 12 research studies of sero-discordant couples. "Sero-discordant" meant that one partner was HIV-negative and the other was HIV-positive. These couples were in faithful relationships and their sero-status was followed over a course of time.
Some of these couples always used condoms whenever they had sex. Others never used condoms.
Davis and Weller found that those who consistently used condoms had a much lower rate of infection. For every 100 person-years, only 0.9% of the originally HIV-negative partners became HIV-positive. (Even this figure can be attributed to wrong use of condoms).
In other words, if a person had sex repeatedly with an HIV-positive partner over a hundred years, his chance of becoming infected himself was less than 1%. Over 99% of the cases would not become infected.
The same study found that those couples who never used condoms had 6.7 cases of infection (of the originally HIV-negative partner) per 100 person-years.
What is implies is that 93.3% of the HIV-negative partners did not get infected despite not using condoms repeatedly. Naturally, this is not something any responsible person would wish to highlight, as it may lead people to gross complacency.
But we need to be aware of this, because this was where the infamous 85% figure was derived from. 0.9% infection with condoms was 85% lower than 6.7% infection rate without condoms.
This is a technicality. The fact remains that if one used condoms the chances of NOT being infected would be over 99% even if one had sex repeatedly over a year with an infected person. This is a very different picture from that painted by the facile claim that condoms are "only 85 percent effective".
In any case, a pharmacist wrote to me recently pointing out in regulatory approvals of new drugs, anything like an 85% efficacy is considered good. The benefit to the population is substantial.
Instead what we have are people who plant the idea that condoms are close to useless in protection, in the hope that they will be scared away from sex. The reality of course is that people will still have sex, but now they won't bother with condoms. Lives will be lost as a result.
Your newspaper has been helping to spread this irresponsible message. Hitherto you might not have known that you're being used as a conduit for disinformation, which is why I am writing to you.
I recognise and appreciate that where someone has written in with a rebuttal, you have printed it. But we can't always depend on someone to rebut, and in any case, readers might not see the rebuttal letter. In that case the irresponsible statements would be left in impressionable minds.
I hope that in the light of what I have pointed out, you will not print any more such statements. I hope that you will not be a party to spreading falsehoods that put precious lives at risk.
By the way, I notice that there is a James Dobson column on every Voices page. James Dobson is a rabid rightwinger from the American culture wars. He leads the organisation Focus on the Family, which is a fundamentalist Christian organisation that is against abortion, against gays and needless to say, against condoms.
I believe that column is paid space, but not many people do. Some people mistake it for a daily editorial by Today. Others, realising that it is paid space, get the impression that Today has been bought by special interests.
cc Forum editor Straits Times - Would be grateful if you would likewise be careful with letters containing such claims.
© Yawning Bread