It's a Wrap 

The answer to Memphis' problems as an STI center? The condom.

Here's one category where Memphis is a national leader. Our city consistently cracks the Centers for Disease Control's top 15 for chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea. Due in large part to our sexual health, Self magazine recently declared Memphis the "overall unhealthiest city" in the United States.

Recent Child Trends studies reveal that teenagers have more than 20 percent of all births in Memphis, creating more dropouts and strained families. More than 70 percent of U.S. teens have had sex by age 18.

Clearly, we are not doing so well. How can we improve our sexual health? By using condoms.

Despite the remedy's simplicity, a little bit of latex creates a whirlwind of debate among those making laws, liturgies, and love. That is why the topics discussed during National Condom Week (February 14th-21st) must become lessons learned by Washington, the general public, and the Southerners keeping statisticians busy.

This winter, Southern health officials met and urged lawmakers to intensify our region's fight against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). At the conference, one health official conceded that "it's unpopular to discuss our differences and single out Southerners" as stodgy, reticent, or even intolerant, but "that might be part of the puzzle in the South." It is time we openly discuss the problem and embrace condom use as part of the solution.

Many people think condoms are unreliable. Certainly, no contraceptive is perfect, but when worn properly, condoms prevent up to 98 percent of STIs and 85 percent of pregnancies. When used in conjunction with another contraceptive method, pregnancy risks decrease further.

Some people say that discussing or dispensing condoms will increase promiscuity. This is false. The World Health Organization reviewed 19 related studies and concluded that sex-education programs do not cause earlier or increased sexual activity among teens. But easy access to condoms does encourage condom use in teens already having sex.

The least-mentioned impasse to condom use is that many people believe condoms ruin intimacy and decrease physical sensation. Individuals must remind themselves that sex can go wrong and have mortal consequences. Condoms save lives; unprotected sex risks lives.

People may dislike the truths involved, but condoms can help break our cycles of disease-impaired health and pregnancy-induced poverty. Although condoms may be everywhere, they face formidable opponents.

The Bush administration has not endorsed condoms despite compelling evidence that they work. President Bush knows that condoms offend certain populations. Playing politics, he strongly favors abstinence-only sex education. Abstinence is indeed an excellent contraceptive, but it ignores the proven benefits of condoms for teens who choose to have sex. Bush ignores the findings of Healthy People 2010, a Health and Human Services report showing that the most effective school-based programs are comprehensive -- advocating abstinence and condom use.

Last week, Bush released his fiscal year 2004 budget, which allocated $135 million for abstinence-only education.

What about condom education? In his State of the Union address, Bush announced a five-year, $15 billion initiative to combat the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. Antiretroviral drugs are essential, but the president has not yet committed to an inexpensive, effective condom promotion initiative.

In December 2002, the Bush administration attempted to derail an Asian population conference, claiming the nations' commitment to a U.N. program "promoted abortion and underage sex." The U.S. tried weakening sex-education and condom clauses, but Asian and Pacific nations voted 30-1 in favor of the previous agreement. Struggling regions want condoms included in their public health education. Americans below the Mason-Dixon Line are no different. We need a president who acknowledges and incorporates condoms into health programs.

Ellen Ruby-Markie is CEO/president of Memphis Regional Planned Parenthood.

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