Safe Sex Can (Still) Save the World!

27 09 2010

At my very small liberal arts college in the late ’80s/early ’90s, talk of safe sex had just begun, trailing the growing HIV/AIDS crisis as public education efforts often do.

They weren’t yet handing out condoms in the student union, but our resident advisors regularly counseled us to “be safe,” and we were given plenty of bananas on which to practice our condom unrolling skills.

Out in the real world (beyond our college campus), movies like Long Time Companion, as well as the touring AIDS quilt were like a Scared Straight (as it were) for college sexual behavior.

Early commercials portrayed AIDS as a death sentence, and they were petrifying performances that had many of us reaching for condoms long before we had a sexual partner.

Fast forward two decades—the picture of HIV/AIDS has changed dramatically, both in terms of survivability and perceived risk of infection. While HIV infection rates continue to grow (approximately 56,000 new HIV infections occur each year in the U.S.),    HIV infection has now become a chronic condition for many.

Today’s commercials are less scary, with ads like this one emphasizing making the right choice (using condoms) during sex:

Once people started surviving AIDS, safe sex lost its immediacy, with a character like the “safe sex angel” now signifying a switch to a lighter, breezier approach.

Also, the fact that condom use and other safer sex behaviors reduce one’s chance of infection with a life-altering STI like gonorrhea, chlamydia, herpes, or HPV is often barely acknowledged in public awareness campaigns, although it should be trumpeted loud and often.  Safe sex isn’t just about HIV prevention.

The misperception that the AIDS crisis is past has allowed many people to back away from safer sex practices that could save their lives. Everywhere, there are indications that safe sex isn’t what it used to be. In Britain, an HIV+ pop star recently admitted to having unprotected sex. and a recent study found that many young gay men (a population at extreme risk for HIV infection) admitted to having unprotected sex with other men.

Studies show that at least 200,000 people are infected with HIV in the U.S. and don’t know it. According to news reports, those most likely to receive a late diagnosis of HIV and to die from AIDS are adults over 50.

HIV leads to AIDS and death, if left untreated. And there is no such thing as safe sex.

Don’t make the mistake of believing that safe sex is a thing of the past.  You can protect yourself from needless infection and chronic health complications by following these simple steps. And as parents, we need to practice what we preach:





Teens, Vaccines, and Media

26 07 2010

How do I communicate with teens? This question hounds most providers as well as parents and teachers. Thanks to excellent research by the Kaiser Family Foundation and PEW Research Center, we know some of the answer lies in the latest media trends and technologies.

But what about health information? Most parents have to walk the line between gatekeeping and educating their teens about their own health and wellness. Nowhere is this juggle more apparent than in the realm of teens and vaccines.

According to CDC, teens 18 and under need Tdap, meningococcal, seasonal flu, and HPV vaccines, as well as to stay current with other childhood vaccines.

In 2008, CDC launched a pre-teen vaccine campaign, impressing on caregivers the importance of vaccinations for this age group as well. The host of recommended vaccines protect against diseases such as whooping cough, HPV, meningitis, pneumonia, and others.

Reaching Our Teens

Communicating the importance of vaccinations to teens isn’t just a matter of laying out the facts. Programs like GetVaxed, PKIDs teen and young adult site, attempt to reach adolescents using colorful, short, pithy health messages with extra punch and color.

Translating health messages, pithy or not, into action is a science that interests many, especially given the evolution of information-sharing with the onset of online and mobile technologies.  In a subsection of the Internet and American Life Report, Pew Research Center tracks the way teens use technology to communicate and get information.

As teens increasingly turn to texting as their preferred method of communication, parents and health providers would be wise to consider ways to text out health and prevention messages.

According to Pew, using texts to educate teens about STD prevention can be effective, though no data exists currently that addresses text immunization messages.

Given the importance of teen and pre-teen vaccination, it’s clear that parents and immunization educators would benefit from more outreach efforts targeting the favored language of teens (texts, Facebook, and the mobile Web).

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s report, Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8 to 18 Year Olds concludes that in the past few years TV as a messaging medium has largely been replaced by the Internet and mobile technology.

Parents and providers are still the trusted purveyors of immunization information for teens, but we need to adapt how we share that information with them to ensure receipt.

 





Kids and Sex, Gotta Have That Talk

15 02 2010

We have got to talk to our kids about sex (and related topics).  They’re going to snicker and act goofy or scowl and pretend to be annoyed, but they won’t run screaming from the room.  That’s because they want to know!

And we have to do it sooner rather than later.

On four separate occasions over the course of a year, 141 families of children aged 13-17 were surveyed concerning the timing of their chats about sexual topics.

Researchers found that over 50% of the teens had already experienced genital touching by the time their parents talked with them about birth control, sexually transmitted diseases and condom use.

More than 40% of the teens had already had intercourse by the time their parents talked with them about sexually transmitted diseases, condom use, choosing birth control and what to do if your partner refuses to wear a condom.

Why do we as parents allow this to happen?  Research suggests that we don’t have an accurate sense of where our children are in the stages of sexual exploration.

We all know that kids are exposed to sexual images and ideas through movies, music, magazines, and television at ever earlier ages.  This influences them in ways we parents may not be prepared to anticipate.

We want to protect our kids.  Most parents aren’t willing to bet their child’s health or life on an assumption that the child will abstain from sex until the parent thinks he or she is ready.

Experts suggest starting the conversation two years earlier than the age we think is appropriate. Don’t wait until just before we think the child is ready to explore sexual contact.

Sexuality is natural, it’s a part of being human, and it’s not just about sex.  Sexuality encompasses gender, interactions with the opposite sex, how men and women and boys and girls express emotion, body image, intimacy, and sexual orientation.

The kids may not listen when we tell them to take out the trash, but 63% of teens say being able to talk to their parents about sex makes it much easier to postpone sexual activity and avoid teen pregnancy.

Wooohooooo!  Parents doin’ the happy dance!

Share





Herpes – Even If You Can’t See It

8 02 2010

Genital herpes is a sexually transmitted disease (STD) most often caused by the herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2).

About 45 million people in the U.S. over the age of 11have been infected. When a person becomes infected with the virus, it causes lesions in the genital area. Once a person is infected with HSV-2, there’s no way to get rid of it. The body carries the virus forever, although there may not always be symptoms.

Scientists used to believe that the life cycle of the virus in the body moved through stages of activity and inactivity. When the virus was active, it caused genital lesions. When the lesions went away, the virus was considered inactive.

Newer evidence suggests the virus may not ever be completely inactive. Now scientists believe that the virus continuously sheds small amounts of itself to the genital area along the nerves from the spinal column, even when lesions are not present.

This information suggests that people may be more contagious during “inactive” times than previously thought. Use of condoms can help prevent transmission, but it’s still possible to become infected when using a condom. Even though there are treatments available that help reduce transmission, there’s nothing that provides 100% protection against infection.

Herpes can be painful, and it can be life-threatening to newborns. Practice safe sex to give yourself the best chance to avoid this and other STDs.

Share





HIV is Still Here

15 01 2010

More than 1 million people in the United States are HIV+, and 25% of them don’t know it.

Thousands infected are between the ages of 13 and 24, and statistics show that 60% of newly-diagnosed youth are African-American.

There are some risk factors unique to adolescents and young adults that increase the chance of transmitting and acquiring HIV:

  • Sexually active youth with no prior HIV/AIDS education typically engage in riskier behaviors.
  • Female African-American youth are at greater risk in part because, for reasons that are not well-understood, this group appears to have a greater chance of becoming infected after exposure. 
  • Young men who don’t disclose their homosexual orientation are less likely to get tested for HIV; consequently, they’re less likely to know if they are HIV+.
  • Young men who don’t disclose their sexual orientation are more likely to have both male and female sexual partners, resulting in increased risk of transmitting the virus to both men and women.
  • Having a sexually transmitted disease (STD) increases the risk that HIV can be both transmitted and acquired. In many areas of the country, teens and young adults have higher rates of STDs than the rest of the population.
  • Drug, tobacco, and alcohol use also contribute to higher rates of HIV transmission among youth. Casual and chronic substance use contributes to high-risk behaviors such as unprotected sex when under the influence of the substance.

It’s important to know your HIV status. If you are HIV+, you need to take steps to avoid infecting others. HIV is not an automatic death sentence. While HIV is not curable, new medications can reduce the amount of virus in your body and help you stay well.

HIV status can be determined by HIV testing. There are three different ways the testing can be done. Blood, urine, and an oral/mouth test can all be used to test for HIV.  Some tests take 3-14 days to get results. A rapid HIV test can give results in 20 minutes.

Free, confidential, or anonymous tests are available. You can visit http://www.hivtest.org to find a testing location or call 1-800-CDC-INFO (available 24 hours a day).

To help stop the spread of HIV and reduce your chances of getting it, avoid having sex or use a new latex condom every time you do have sex. Also, talk about sex and HIV with your partners and friends. Talk to your friends about HIV testing and talk to your partners about their HIV status and past tests. And, talk to your doctor.

If you are sexually active, get tested for HIV.

Share





Keep Our Kids Safe

5 05 2009

Abstaining from sex is a good way not to get a sexually transmitted infection.

To get through life without any such infections, there are two choices: never have sex – ever, or never have sex except with a partner who has never had sex with anyone else, and never will.

give them the info they need to stay safe

give them the info they need to stay safe

As parents, it’s hard for us to think about our children growing up and becoming intimate with anyone, but, giving them narrow choices such as are described above is risky.  Most of our teens and young adults want to heed our wishes and even, occasionally, our rules, but there are few perfectly obedient people in this world.

Rather than risking our children’s lives by assuming they will only do as we say, the safer choice seems to be arming our children with as much knowledge about disease prevention as possible, while continuing to share our values and beliefs.

To protect them, we tell them what we want, what we expect, and why, but we include the information they need to stay as safe as possible, should they make risky choices.  Better they know how to have safe sex but not need the information, than need the info and not have it.