Opinion

Reality check: Sexually transmitted infections vs. H1N1 flu | Amy Johnson

It’s back to school time, which comes with reminders to wash our hands, sneeze into our elbows and prevent the spread of swine flu. All this got me to thinking: What if we put an equal effort into the public health crisis of sexually transmitted diseases as we do to prevent H1N1?

To be fair, I have to admit this is not a totally original idea, but a spin on one introduced by Meg Stone in 2009 in her article “Swine and Dandy,” in which she focused on sexual assault prevention. I decide to take a new twist and talk about sexually transmitted infections.

You might think I’m nuts. After all, the flu is a much bigger problem than STIs, right? Consider this. According to the Center for Disease Control, there were approximately 60 million total cases of H1N1 last year. Some of these statistics are extrapolated due to the lack of people who actually go to the doctor to get tested when they get sick with the flu. Still, they were generous in their calculations.

Contrast that to a wimpy 3.2 million teen girls who have STIs. That’s not total STI cases — that’s just one in four teen girls with STIs. Infections that can cause infertility, cancer and death. The total number of people in America who’ve been diagnosed with an STI is more like 39,487,025 (compiled from 2008 CDC data). Sounds like a public health crisis to me. We better get on this!

What if we equaled the effort that has increased hand sanitizers and education posters about the flu in public restrooms? What if we had condom dispensers in the same proportion, along with posters about preventing STIs in public restrooms (or even in the Department of Licensing, where I was able to sanitize my hands while waiting for my number last week)?

What if the shame and stigma of sexually transmitted diseases disappeared enough that people weren’t afraid to get tested? And more than half the doctors actually brought the subject up with teens during annual check-ups?

What if that shame and stigma about contracting an STI was replaced with a redoubled effort to educate the masses about prevention? If every middle school, high school and college student had access to the information they need to make healthy choices? And what if they also had reminders of safe practices every time they used a public restroom?

Let’s do a reality check, shall we? This won’t happen because too many people in our country don’t want to call attention to sexually transmitted diseases because they still have an underlying attitude that somehow, if a person gets HIV (or syphilis or gonorrhea or chlamydia), it’s their own dang fault.

Yet, we slash health budgets in schools and come out in droves when a district wants to expand its sexuality education to give teens the information they need to stay safe — because that might mean we have to admit that, like generations of adolescents before them, some of them are actually having sex.

Giving information about safer sex practices doesn’t condone the behavior, any more than giving information about health food choices condones a daily diet of junk food. We all know that lots of teens eat pizza and fries and drink energy drinks, but we don’t get embarrassed to talk to them about ways they can be healthier. We don’t keep nutritional information from them about what is healthy so they can make better choices. We shouldn’t withhold information about healthier and safer sexual choices from our youth, either.

Oh, and don’t forget to sneeze into your elbow.

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