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Health Department proposes first-ever youth sexual health plan

HIV/STD testing, pictured left, through school-based health centers.
May 27, 2014
New York's first-ever Youth Sexual Health Plan was unveiled last week to combat the growing epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies among young people.

The plan, released under the direction of acting state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, is a "guide to ensure that accurate sexual health information and quality health services are made available to all youth," which cites a 2011 self-reported study that reveals an increase in sexual activity among adolescents.

"Reproductive and sexual health are key issues for adolescents and young adults," Zucker said. "Providing accurate and comprehensive information to protect adolescents' health and prepare them for responsible decision making is a public health priority."

According to the self-reported health risks and behaviors study, cited in the plan's statement of need, 60.9 percent of New York state high school students said they had sexual intercourse by the time they reached their senior year and more than one-in-four reported being sexually active by the time they entered high school.  

More than one-in-ten of those students did not use any method to prevent pregnancy during their last sexual encounter, according to the study, and just 7.2 percent protected themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

The New York State Health Department has released its first-ever sexual health plan to combat the rise in sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies among young people. The plan includes several initiatives to promote safe sex and healthy sexual relationships, including sex education for elementary students.
The stakes are even higher for youth in foster care, according to the report, where nearly one-third of young women become pregnant at least once by the time they are 17 years old.

In 2012, there were 12,733 births to women 19 years of age or younger, with 29 percent of this group aged 17 or younger, according to the plan, which also reports 1-in-5 newly diagnosed cases of HIV infection that year — totaling 3,306 — to be among individuals under the age of 25.

Chlamydia is the most commonly reported communicable disease in New York with more than 100,000 cases reported in 2012, according to the state Health Department, and nearly two out of three cases are among youth age 15-24 and one out of three are age 15-19.

With one-in-four adolescents likely to acquire an STD — which rises to one-in-two for sexually active people by age 25 — the state Health Department is recommending that school districts get a head start on promoting safe sex and encourage sex ed. talks for elementary school students.

One of the goals listed in the plan also aims to make HIV/STD testing and screening available at school-based health centers.

Presented as a blueprint to help educators "normalize" sex talks, the plan also includes a number of initiatives for professional development to ensure educators are providing comprehensive,"age-appropriate" and unbiased sex information that is "evidence-based" and medically accurate.  

Some of the other proposals include pairing young people with mentors and other programs that educate youth about substance abuse, and the difference between healthy sexual relationships and abusive ones.

The state Health Department says their plan is broadly supported by the public and points to a 

statewide survey that indicates a 95.2 percent acceptability for teaching STD prevention in high school and 89.6 percent for teaching STD prevention in middle school.

However, the Rev. Jason McGuire, executive director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms — a nonprofit Christian lobbying organization — said the state Health Department may be stepping on parents' toes.

"The Department of Health oversteps its authority when it comes between a parent and their child. New York state bureaucrats will define age-appropriate sex education for kindergartners far differently than the average parent," he said. "Health Department officials would be better off encouraging stronger relationships between parents and their children, than encouraging youth to turn to peer-counselor classmates for sexual counsel."

McGuire believes abstinence until marriage is the only way to protect teenagers from STDs and unwanted pregnancies 100 percent of the time and said, "The question is whether public policy will encourage the best choices for our teenagers, or settle for something less."

He noted a decision in 2007 by former state Health Commissioner Richard Daines to cancel contracts with abstinence-only programs to instead expand sexual education programs. Funding has since then been directed to condoms and contraception training in schools and other community settings, he said.

"New Yorkers should be asking Albany to practice its own form of abstinence when it comes to any additional funding for condom availability programs. The average parent would rather that their child learns to read, than receive contraception in the classroom.  Let teachers worry about books, and mom and dad take care of the birds and the bees," McGuire said. 

But M. Tracey Brooks, president and CEO of Family Planning Advocates, said the state Health Department's plan "is a commonsense approach that is reflected in the fact that 85 percent of New York voters agree that age- appropriate medically accurate sex education should be taught in New York public schools."

Terri Smith-Caronia, vice president of advocacy for Housing Works New York — a grassroots organization serving as a "healing community for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS"— said the Youth Sexual Health Plan is "progressive" and is a step in the right direction, but ignores the contributing factors as to why young, gay, black males are contracting HIV/AIDS at a faster rate than their heterosexual peers.

According to the health Department's sexual health plan, new diagnoses among males between the ages of 15-24 almost doubled from the year 2002 to 2008, increasing from 358 to 667. Those numbers have been on the rise since, according to the report, with more than 600 new diagnoses per year with 616 in 2011. The case is said to be primarily due to a rise of new infections among young men of color that have sex with men.

Smith-Caronia said the statistics are "coming from a weird place" and doesn't offer a solution to the problem, noting the hardships members of the LGBTQ community face securing jobs or housing due to discrimination. "If there was no HIV on the planet there wouldn't be a discussion on black men, particularly [those within the LGBTQ community, about their sexual health]," she said. 

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