July 16, 2009
The news is not good.
Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) focusing on the sexual and reproductive health of young people aged 10-24 and found that some negative health outcomes stemming from sexual risk behaviors are on the rise and progress in other areas is slowing down. The report details trends and statistics regarding topics such as HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), teen births, sexual assault, and health disparities for the years between 2002 and 2007.
Many negative outcomes had decreased in the period between 1997 and 2007, and the data suggests that the rate at which they are declining is slowing or coming to a halt. And, for some outcomes, the numbers have actually increased. All of us who work in the sexual and public health world know that this could spell out disaster in the future.
For example, it is disheartening that after more than 20 years in decline, the gonorrhea rate has leveled off and the syphilis rate – a disease which the CDC once had hopes of completely eliminating – has actually increased. In 2007 we also saw a significant increase in the birth rate, after more than 14 years in decline, among adolescents ages 15 to 19. Perhaps most disturbing is that the annual rate of AIDS diagnoses of males between the ages of 15 and 19 has almost doubled during the past ten years. The progress that we have fought so hard for over the past decades is in real danger of slipping through our fingers.
The silver lining in this situation is that we know that we as a public health community, in partnership with the government, know how to respond to such challenges. When faced with the explosion of the HIV/AIDS epidemic more than 20 years ago, we were able to launch unprecedented reforms and campaigns to make real progress against the spread of the virus. This is the kind of unity and dedication that we need again today. After too many years of being ignored by the previous administration, the sexual health and well-being of our young people must once again become an important focus issue if we are to ensure them healthy futures.
This report should serve as a call to policy makers that they need to establish a comprehensive approach to improve adolescent sexual health outcomes. In order to achieve real and lasting progress, we need to create medically accurate, evidence-based programs that meet the needs of our nation’s young people, and give up on the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach that has failed us.
Policy makers must create an environment where educators on the ground can address sexual risk-taking among young people and provide youth with the information and services they need to make responsible decisions about their sexual health. Moreover, policy makers need to acknowledge that the negative outcomes of sexual risk behaviors are linked and make connections between unintended teen pregnancy and the epidemic of STIs and HIV currently plaguing America’s teens.
We call on all members of our community, and on Congress, to rededicate themselves not only to preserving the progress we have made so far, but to expanding the gains of past years. We know we can rise to the challenge, and we know it begins with comprehensive sexuality education that meets the needs of all young people.