Brazil’s health ministry have vowed to proceed with plans to put condom vending machines in schools and sought to defuse criticism with a new study showing that parents in the world’s largest Roman Catholic nation approve of the idea.

The study, conducted by the United Nations body UNESCO, concluded that two-thirds of the parents surveyed like having the government offer teenagers free condoms and sex education.

The findings could come as a surprise to some Brazilian parents. Most of the population of 185 million is Catholic and the church, which remains influential despite losing ground to fast-growing evangelical churches, is opposed to birth control and preaches sexual abstinence until marriage.

"The health ministry is not afraid to debate with anyone," said Health Minister Agenor Alvares at an event to publicise the new findings.

A representative of Brazil’s Conference of Catholic Bishops was not immediately available for comment.

Brazil’s health ministry has been offering free condoms and sex education for more than a decade in some schools as part of an Aids-prevention programme that has been recognised worldwide for its success in avoiding an epidemic of the sexually transmitted disease.

To increase condom distribution, the ministry recently launched a contest for technical schools to design a better condom vending machine and will award $US25,000 ($NZ37,174) to the team of students with the best design.

Test machines could go into schools as early as 2008 and the health ministry eventually hopes to put them in bars, clubs and 24-hour gas stations as well.

The UNESCO study was conducted among 135 schools already participating as well as a smaller number of non-participant schools across about half of Brazil’s states.

The study found that 45 per cent of students aged 13 to 19 already had an active sex life and that 60 to 70 per cent had used condoms to protect against unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases like Aids.

About 10 per cent said they had sex without using a condom because they could not afford one, while 42 per cent said they simply did not have one handy.

Via New Zealand News