HIV/AIDS Prevention: Do We Really Care Anymore?

I remember the anxiety and sometime hysteria about AIDS in the ’80s.  The initial identification of AIDS as a “gay disease” was soon countered with the information that you could also  get it through heterosexual sex, as well as from tainted needles and blood transfusions. Everyone became paranoid about getting the disease. Disinformation was everywhere: you couldn’t get it if you were a woman, or straight; you could get it from sweat, or a toilet seat.

The Reagan Administration was slow to respond to the crisis. In fact, the Surgeon General at the time, Everett C. Koop, was forbidden to bring it to the public’s attention. He finally did anyway and dissemination of information about how to prevent it followed. Other than avoidance of all sexual contact, the only way to prevent the transmission of AIDS was to use a condom. Koop, who was a committed Christian, saw no problem with saying so.

And then came abstinence-only sex education, which, as you should know, not only teaches abstinence as the only absolutely sure way to prevent pregnancy and STDs (a fact which can’t be argued with), but also refuses to disseminate any information about birth control methods…unless it is misleading. (Such as the “fact” that condoms fail 31% of the time to prevent HIV/AIDS infection.) That’s because abstinence-only sex education relies on scaring kids out of having sex. If nothing works to prevent pregnancy or STDs then it is assumed that kids will avoid sex altogether. It’s inconceivable to these “educators” that kids might go ahead and have unprotected sex, because after all “nothing works anyway.”

What abstinence-only sex education does is erase any frank talk about sexual issues. The message that sex outside of marriage is bad has even affected those who are presumably old enough to make their own decisions about sex. Young women especially are afraid to carry condoms or ask their partners to use them because they think it makes them look “fast.” If sex just “happens,” they can convince themselves that they didn’t mean for it to, therefore they’re still “good girls.”

The upshot is that HIV transmission has, after falling dramatically since the ’80s, begun to creep up again (for instance, a 15% increase between 2004 and 2007), and other STDs like syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are also on the rise. Even though HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was, it is still no picnic to live with, is very expensive to treat, and can still be fatal.

As part of the new health care reform, the federal government has committed to spending $50 million annually for the next five years on abstinence-only sex education. I say this is at best ill-advised, and at worst, fraudulent. Abstinence-only education shouldn’t even be called “education;” it is nothing more than indoctrination. But apparently our government thinks it’s a good idea to tell our children nothing substantive about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases.

Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS and other STDs (not to mention unwanted pregnancy) continue to plague our society. But, hey, that’s okay. At least people aren’t doing it on purpose.

Sources: Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports;  an article in the June 2010 issue of The American Prospect magazine (you have to be a subscriber to read the whole article online).

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