DAVID CRARY

NEW YORK (AP) ¿ Advocates of the female condom are promoting a less costly, more user-friendly version that they hope will vastly expand its role in the global fight against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.

An early version of the female condom was introduced in 1993, and it remains the only available woman-initiated form of protection against both STDs and unintended pregnancy. Yet despite global promotion by the United Nations and other organizations, its usage is still minuscule, even as women bear an ever-growing share of the AIDS epidemic.

Advocates hope the dynamics will change following last month's approval by the Food and Drug Administration of the FC2, a new version of the female condom produced by the Chicago-based Female Health Co.

About 35 million female condoms were distributed worldwide last year, but that compares to more than 10 billion male condoms, which are far cheaper and, at least initially, easier to use. However, in some nations with high HIV rates, many men refuse to wear condoms, putting women at risk.

Though it looks similar to its predecessor ¿ a soft, transparent sheath with flexible inner and outer rings ¿ the FC2 is made from synthetic rubber rather than polyurethane, making it cheaper to produce.

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