03/03/2011

Carnival, candy, condoms

Carnival is closely associated with hangovers – severe headaches are frequently suffered on Ash Wednesday following the consumption of too much alcohol. Many people also have vague memories of dragging someone they had just met at a pub and hardly knew off to bed and having unprotected sex with them in their intoxicated and thus uninhibited state. Contraception is one issue, but people rely on the pill as far as this is concerned. This contraceptive does not protect either women or men from sexually transmitted diseases, however: using condoms is the only way to protect oneself against AIDS, gonorrhoea, syphilis and hepatitis B or C infections.

It is therefore more true during the carnival season than at any other time that only complete fools forget to practice safe sex! The problem: since there have been drugs that can postpone the outbreak of AIDS for many years, infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is no longer considered to be a catastrophe by men under 25 years old in particular. They belong to a “carefree generation” that grew up at a time when there already was specific treatment for the AIDS virus and the disease no longer meant a quick death. The percentage of men in the sexually active age group of 16- to 44-year-old single males who never use a condom was 26 per cent in the most recent study and is therefore – fortunately – decreasing. Risk awareness is not the same everywhere, however, as the rising number of new HIV infections demonstrates. The Robert Koch Institute in Berlin has reported that about 3 000 Germans infected themselves with the AIDS virus last year alone, whereas the figure was only 1 443 ten years ago. This means that about 70 000 people are currently living in Germany who have an HIV infection and are suffering from AIDS, which corresponds to one person in every 1 167 inhabitants of the country. Although the actual figures are higher and can only be guessed, this is low by international standards – as many as one in every 292 inhabitants of Brazil was HIV-infected in 2007. But anyone who takes the data seriously knows that every single infection is one too many, because it causes individual suffering that it would be better for partners and relatives not to have to share.

AIDS organisations have intensified their prevention campaigns in the carnival heartlands in particular in recent years. 10 000 condoms were, for example, distributed during the carnival season in Düsseldorf. The AIDS organisation and the municipal health authorities in Münster created 1 000 carnival condoms printed with the slogan Stay covered up for a safe carnival. And the Cologne company Condomi marketed its condoms in a pack printed with clowns, with the aim of encouraging carnival fans to use condoms.

Other countries have shown what can be done: the health authorities on the Canary Islands, where gonorrhoea and syphilis are twice as common as in the rest of Spain, made 300 000 condoms available free of charge during the carnival season. The Brazilian government is distributing as many as 84 million condoms to the country’s inhabitants this year. And where the carnival is held on the streets there, such as in Salvador da Bahia, condoms are thrown to the spectators rather than sweets ...

Incidentally: There is dispute about where condoms got their name. One theory attributes the name to a doctor who practiced at the court of the English king Charles II. The doctor is supposed to have been called Condom, Contom or Conton and is said to have recommended to the king that he used sheep’s intestines to avoid infections and pregnancies and apparently produced appropriate sheaths himself, for which he was knighted. However, since there is no historical evidence confirming the existence of a Dr Condom during Charles II’s reign (1660 – 1685), the whole thing may be no more than an amusing anecdote. It is at any rate the case that the product we are talking about was first mentioned in English literature as a “condum” in a poem written in 1706 (journey_through_time). Another theory attributes the term "condom" to the ancient Persian word "kendü" or "kondü", which developed into the Latin word "condus" (in the accusative: "condom") and meant a "container" – in the historical cultures, what was generally involved here was a sack made from animal intestines for storing plant seeds (!) The only thing that is definite is probably that the word "condom" has nothing to do with the town of Condom, the capital of Armagnac in the Southern French Département Gers, where the word for “condom” is “capote” or simply “préservatif”. Many people go there anyway, as a result of which a small condom museum was opened there in 2005 (Musée du préservatif, 4, Rue de Sénéchal, open from mid-June to mid-September).

Condoms do in fact have something “museumish” about them, since their history goes right the way back to ancient Egypt (journey_through_time). The prototype of what is now the latex condom was not produced by the US chemist Charles Nelson Goodyear until 1855, when he invented the vulcanisation of rubber with the help of heat and sulphur, making the material resistant as a result. Before this, mankind made do with appendices, urinary and gall bladders from animals or used penis sheaths made of leather, linen and oil-impregnated paper. For cost reasons alone, condoms in these original forms were used on several occasions and were repaired when required. Condoms made from natural intestines still hold a minor niche position on the world market today. BSE is making them a smaller and smaller feature of the market, however, because most of them come from calf or lamb slaughtering operations. Another reason is because they do not provide a barrier against the AIDS virus or germs that cause other diseases, so that they are inferior to latex condoms in this respect too.

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During the carnival season it is even possible nowadays to wear condoms on your head – as a condom hat made from 100 per cent polyester – or to wear them as costume and even cover up one’s entire body with it. It goes without saying that not even the biggest of carnival fools would think such hats or costumes have a contraceptive effect or provide protection against AIDS. They do, however, make it very clear that carnival and condom use belong together. Before setting off to celebrate carnival, every fan should make this his motto: it is better to have a condom with me and not need it than to need one and not have any with me ...