To say that Minnesota is in a state of crisis when it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is like saying sure, it gets a little cold here in the winter. In 2009, there were 17,000 new cases of STIs, the highest-ever level in the state. Now, we have learned that new HIV infections have risen by 13 percent, the highest level in 17 years. These numbers are surging for all ages and races and throughout the state, but no group is more affected than the teens and young adults of Minnesota.
Much has been saidabout how the abstinence-only education policies of the Bush era has led to the recent increase in pregnancy rates across the country. Much less has been said about how those policies have led to an increase in rates of infections for STIs, but the evidence is mounting, especially in Minnesota. According to a newly-released study by Planned Parenthood Minnesota, chlamydia rates for young adults have tripled in the last 14 years, and teens and young adults now account for 60 percent of all gonorrhea infections in the state.
Many of these teens and young adults came of age and went to school during the seven years during which Governor Tim Pawlenty has been governor. Even before he began making drastic cuts in the health care budget that have become the signature of his current run for president, Pawlenty has spent years appeasing his conservative, evangelical supporters by cutting budgets for family planning, reproductive health care and sex education, instead championing abstinence-only education and providing more dollars to “positive alternative” groups that simply dealt with the resulting unwanted pregnancies by offering baby cradles and bible verses.
“Although the Minnesota State Legislature passed legislation to promote comprehensive sex education, including programs that contain information about both abstinence and risk reduction, the legislation was abandoned under threat of veto by Governor Pawlenty,” states the report from Planned Parenthood. “This lack of comprehensive, prevention-focused sex education has resulted in a generation of young people who are at an increased risk of acquiring an STI or HIV, and who are without the information or means necessary to protect themselves.”
Planned Parenthood uses the study to call for a strategic response from legislature that includes greater funding of comprehensive sex ed programs, which they see as key to turning around the increase in STI rates. They propose that these programs be “evidence-based, culturally relevant and age-appropriate,” and include both abstinence messages and information about contraceptives and health care needs.
But does such a program have a shot when you have a governor who is running for president by moving as far to the right on fiscal and social issues as possible, as well as fearlessly waving a veto pen in front of the legislature? And how likely are we to see “controversial” programs like evidence-based sex ed when so many legislative leaders are running for governor themselves?
“The problem we have right now is the budget deficit in the state,” said Sarah Stoesz, Chief Executive Officer of Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota. “I think many of our legislative leaders would see this as an important issue to address, and would be glad to do so. But this budget deficit and revenue stalemate has made it very difficult to advance a public policy for addressing the issue, and because of it our young people and the public health of the state has been abandoned.”
“The Minnesota Department of Health needs to acknowledge that this is a problem that must be addressed, and begin to speak out on the problem, They need to become activly involved in studying policy alternatives and putting it out there.”
The public health community doesn’t bear the sole responsibility for beginning discussions on lowering STI rates. Parents, teachers and others need to recognize this public health crisis directly affecting our youth, both their current health and future fertility. “Unfortunately,” Stoez said, “because it is related to sexuality it becomes uncomfortable to talk about.”
It’s getting the conversation started that appears to be the major roadblock, as the solutions to the STI epidemic are ready to be implemented as soon as everyone is ready to start fixing broken policies like abstinence-only education and lack of contraceptive knowledge.
“These are things we can address,” according to Stoesz. “It’s not like we have to embark on a longterm study on how to treat it. It’s all about [the] unwllingness of leaders beyond the healthcare community to grapple with this particular problem.”