Beads, Cups. . . and Condoms?

February 1, 1997

Judith Zwolak

Mardi Gras celebrations in uptown New Orleans and suburban areas may still be family affairs, but, like it or not, Carnival in the French Quarter seems more bacchanalian each year. "In some ways you can call Mardi Gras a public health nightmare," says Emili Zielinski, an international health and development doctoral student in the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.

"People don't often think of the health implications of combining a lot of alcohol with a lot of sexual activity." As students in a public health school located just blocks from the French Quarter, Zielinski says she and her colleagues have a duty to educate Carnival celebrants about the risks of unsafe sex and to help prevent the spread of disease and unwanted pregnancies.

"As public health professionals, we thought one of the best things we could do, in keeping with the spirit of Mardi Gras, was to distribute condoms," she says. This year will mark the Tulane Mardi Gras Condom Patrol's fifth year on the streets of New Orleans as part of the Tulane AIDS Awareness Project. The season promises to be just as busy as last year, when approximately 200 volunteers distributed more than 50,000 free condoms over the four-day Mardi Gras weekend to revelers in the Quarter, the Tremi neighborhood and at some uptown parades, Zielinski says.

Patrollers are primarily from the school of public health, but also include students from the schools of medicine and social work as well as undergraduate peer-health educators from the uptown Student Health Center. Condoms are donated from a variety of sources. Zielinksi, one of the main organizers of the event last year, says the condom patrol was a big hit on the streets of the Quarter in 1996. "You get some teasing, but a lot of people are very positive," she says.

"Of course the Bourbon Street male frat-boy crowd is receptive, but a lot of the older tourists who saw us told us that they thought what we were doing was a good idea. In the gay parts of the Quarter people are really encouraging. Distributing condoms is more routine there because the bars have been involved in promoting safer sex." From the Saturday before Mardi Gras until Fat Tuesday, patrollers descend on paradegoers in teams of 12, carrying signs and wearing T-shirts that identify themselves as the condom patrol.

Most of the interchanges between students and revelers are brief, but patrol members also find opportunities to exchange more information or demonstrate condom use on a banana or their hand, Zielinski says. "We know all of these condoms are not necessarily going to be used in sexual activity," she says. "What we really see this as is a chance to promote the concept of safer sex as part of the Mardi Gras party atmosphere, to make this an acceptable topic of conversation for people. It's rewarding to see people being prompted to think about it a little more."

Fellow patrol member and one of this year's organizers, Kim Longfield, is a graduate student in international health and development. She says the patrol's fun, non-judgmental approach to encouraging safe sex helps the members get their message across effectively. "I think it's especially important to get women comfortable with the idea of carrying condoms," Longfield says. "Also, it helps making the whole process fun and lighthearted. People have been inundated with health messages through the media that say 'se condoms or you will die.' I think people feel more comfortable when [safe sex] is presented in a more lighthearted manner."

Last year, Nomi Fuchs, a December 1996 graduate of the public health school, spent her first New Orleans' Mardi Gras on the condom patrol. "I wanted to reach out to the community and put to practice what I had been learning in my courses," Fuchs says. "I was overwhelmed at first but then I started engaging people who asked me questions and I felt very empowered."

This year's patrol members, and the 12-member planning committee, started in late November to gear up for the Feb. 8-11 patrol by painting signs and gathering condoms and other donated items such as art supplies for signs. "We will have more condoms this year than last year by a little bit," Zielinski says. "We found out last year that we can't have too many."

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