New Idea for STD-Detecting Condoms Could Be a Breakthrough

Three English high school students have come up with an idea for an STD-detecting condom that could be a major step forward in the fight against these infections.
Three English high school students have come up with an idea for an STD-detecting condom that could be a powerful weapon in the fight against these infections.

The health care community has been abuzz lately with excitement over an idea advanced by three clever English high school students. This forward-thinking trio has proposed the development of a condom that changes color upon contact with the microorganisms that cause sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs.

Before you rush out to buy one of these color-changing condoms, be warned that these innovative teens have thus far only come up with a concept for a product that is not yet available to anyone.

However, it is a concept that could make a huge difference in the battle against STDs, which are also widely known as sexually transmitted infections, or STIs.

Wins TeenTech Awards

The three teens — all students at England’s Isaac Newton Academy — are 13-year-old Muaz Nawaz and two 14-year-olds, Chirag Shah and Daanyal Ali. They submitted their concept for the STD-detecting condom as an entry in the United Kingdom’s TeenTech Awards and took top honors, winning a cash award of about $1,500 as well as a future visit to Prince Andrew at Buckingham Palace.

The annual TeenTech competition is designed to encourage students “to understand their true potential and the real opportunities available in the contemporary STEM workplace.” STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

In an interview with the Washington Post, 14-year-old Ali said that he and his two young colleagues recognized that “STIs were a huge problem in the U.K. We saw a gap in the market, and we wanted to help people feel safer.”

Color-Changing Condoms

Basically, their idea for this unique STD-alert system envisions a condom embedded with antibodies for a number of the most common STDs. When one of the condom’s antibodies reacts with an antigen from one of these STDs its color will change depending on the STD it encounters.

Among the STDs this color-changing condom might detect are chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, genital herpes, and human papillomavirus. And as Ali indicated, these STDs are apparently a significant health problem in the United Kingdom, but the problem knows no national borders and is a health concern in countries around the world. If the product the teens envision can be successfully developed and manufactured at reasonable cost, its potential market worldwide would probably be very large indeed.

Condoms can be helpful in slowing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but a condom that changes color upon contact with a disease-causing microorganism could help alert users and their partners to the presence of an infection.
Condoms can be helpful in slowing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but a condom that changes color upon contact with a disease-causing microorganism could help alert users and their partners to the presence of an infection.

Just a Concept So Far

Speaking to a reporter for the Washington Post, Maggie Philbin, TeenTech’s co-founder and chief executive officer, pointed out that at this point the STD-detecting condom is simply a concept and that no product yet exists. She also acknowledged that many of the ideas for products that are presented as TeenTech projects never get beyond the concept stage.” However, she was quick to add that “some of them do make it,” adding that some condom manufacturers have approached the teens to express their interest in the idea.

Philbin said she felt the TeenTech Awards judges had given the teens top honors “because the project showed how much learning these boys had done while researching STDs.”

Questions Arise

The very nature of the teens’ product idea inevitably gives rise to a host of questions about what the product could or should include. For example, 14-year-old Shah notes that genital herpes at present has no cure, and thus some people might not want to know they’re infected. He said that for that reason he and his teammates are considering possibly omitting herpes detection and substituting in its place HIV or some other STD.

Another thing that isn’t yet clear is whether the students’ concept for this new disease-detecting condom would identify infections in just the user or his partner or both. Of course, if the STD-sensitive condom becomes a reality, it certainly could give rise to some very awkward and uncomfortable moments in the bedroom no matter whose STD it might detect.

Then there is the question of what would happen if the condom detected multiple sexually transmitted infections. Would it identify each by turning the multiple colors keyed to each specific infection? Or would it just turn into a blend of all the colors, making it impossible to identify which specific infection it had encountered. Of course, in a case such as that it would at least alert the user and/or his partner that something’s amiss and hopefully send them in search of medical attention.

A Step in the Right Direction

One thing that is clear, however, is that the teens’ idea, if it can be converted into a viable product, would help to address a growing problem worldwide.

In the United States alone, nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infections are diagnosed every year, according to a 2013 estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s 2013 report contains the most recent data available to the public as of mid-July 2015. CDC’s data is based on local and state STD case reports from a variety of private and public sources.

Sexually transmitted diseases are a major health challenge worldwide.
Sexually transmitted diseases are a major health challenge worldwide.

As staggering as the CDC’s data may be, it should be borne in mind that it is just an estimate. Current rules require that the CDC be advised only of three STDs — chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea. And as the CDC points out, many cases of those three infections go undiagnosed and unreported. On top of that many other common STDs, including human papillomavirus, herpes simplex virus, and trichomoniasis (a parasitic infection), are not routinely reported to the CDC.

Chlamydia Cases Down Slightly

CDC’s hard 2013 data for chlamydia indicates that a bit more than 1.4 million cases were reported. That represented a decrease of 1.5 percent from the number of cases reported in 2012. Gonorrhea was diagnosed in 333,004 people in 2013, little changed from the previous year.

Unfortunately, syphilis — both primary and secondary infections — was up by about 10 percent in 2013. A total of 17,375 cases was reported for 2013. Much of this increase came among men, particularly gay and bisexual men.

CDC estimates that health care costs associated with STDs amount to $16 billion annually. Young people between the ages of 15 and 24 account for roughly half of all cases diagnosed each year. Beyond the immediate health problems presented by STDs, they can cause long-term damage, including reproductive health complications, such as ectopic pregnancy and infertility.

Global Data Discouraging

Worldwide, the data on STDs paints an even gloomier picture. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 million people acquire an STD every day. Each year, 500 million people become ill with one of four STDs: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis, according to WHO, which also estimates that more 530 million people worldwide carry the virus that causes genital herpes. And roughly 290 women worldwide have a human papillomavirus infection (HPV).

Although most of these STDs can be present with little or no symptoms, according to WHO, the damage they cause can be irreversible. The Geneva-based health organization says that of the eight STDs that cause the greatest damage and are most widespread, four are curable. These four are chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis. While the other four — hepatitis B, herpes, HIV, and HPV — are incurable, they all can be mitigated or modulated to some degree through existing modalities of treatment.

If the idea of three young Englishmen for an easier way to detect the presence of STDs becomes a reality, it will be a major step forward for the control of these illnesses and the prevention of their proliferation.

Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.

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