April is STD Awareness month. This article is one in a series published by RH Reality Check in partnership with the National Coalition of STD Directors, focused on aspects of STD prevention, treatment and funding and the public health implications of neglecting STDs.
When it comes to young people and sexual health, Philadelphia has much to brag about, but also has an uphill struggle. On the latter for example, national surveillance data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that Philadelphia is in the top 10 among large cities for sexually transmitted diseases, excluding HIV (which is an often sexually-transmitted infection), with current local data indicating even higher rates of these diseases for 2010. Additionally, Philadelphia has an HIV incidence rate 5 times the national average – surpassing New York’s rate of new HIV infections, with youth ages 13 to 24 representing 25 percent of all newly diagnosed HIV cases. We also know from Youth Risk Behavioral Survey data that more of our youth report an early sexual debut compared to the national average and they also report having sex with four or more persons than the national average.
Combating these numbers has not been easy but we have responded. For many years, the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, STD Control Program (PDPH/STD) has distributed free condoms city-wide through its Condom Distribution Program (CDP) which has grown to include more than 100 unique sites across Philadelphia, making it the most comprehensive network of free condom distribution sites in the city. Site types include community-based organizations, churches, corner stores, beauty salons, adult clubs and bookstores, bathhouses, and college health centers. Through the CDP, the STD Control Program distributed nearly 1.5M free condoms in 2010.
But on April 7, 2011, our city’s leaders, led by Mayor Michael Nutter and the Deputy Mayor, Health & Opportunity, Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz, MD, MPH launched PDPH/STD Control Program’s “Take Control Philly,” a comprehensive youth targeted STD/HIV Prevention Initiative.
The goals of this initiative are threefold.
First, the campaign will seek to create opportunities for Philadelphians to participate in the PDPH/STD Control Program’s efforts to reduce STDs and HIV among youth. It will build on the types of creative activities we began last year like the “CONDOMS WORK!” art contest we held last November and that was open to Philadelphians interested in designing the graphics for a Philadelphia branded condom. Over the course of the contest, over 100 submissions were received. A panel of experts narrowed down the entries to the top five which then went to an online vote. Michael Bodenberger’s “Freedom Condom” won the contest with 43% of the votes.
Second, “Take Control Philly: will increase the accessibility and availability of free condoms through the expansion of the PDPH/STD Control Program’s Condom Distribution Program (CDP), the city’s most comprehensive network of free condom distribution sites. PDPH/STD has increased the number of non-traditional youth specific sites that participate in its CDP from 5 to 17, with another 15 projected to be recruited and in operation by May 1, 2011. This is in addition to the established sites that are open to all ages and youth friendly. PDPH/STD Control has also developed a condom site locator app (iCondom Philly) for iPhone, a web-based mapping tool for individuals without iPhones, and has planned a city-wide traditional marketing campaign to include bus shelters and bus and subway advertising.
And third, the new campaign will provide a forum for youth to engage in an open and honest dialogue about normalizing condom use among their peers through web-based services to reduce their risk for acquiring preventable STDs. Over the past eight years, Philadelphia’s High School Screening Program has educated over 100,000 high school students on their risks of HIV and STDs and the importance of using condoms correctly and consistently. “Take Control Philly” builds upon this program through the development of a youth-specific educational website which includes information on HIV and STDs, video instruction on how to use a male and female condom, and an online request form for 11 to 19 year olds who would prefer to have condoms mailed to them.
A formal evaluation of this initiative will determine its visibility and impact on the condom use behaviors of youth ages 11 to 19 years old. It will also inform and direct the future planning and projects of the initiative to ensure this high risk population receives timely, relevant, and age appropriate information and services.
Leadership and innovative programming through “Take Control Philly” will bring greater outcomes for our own city’s youth and we hope, will serve as a model for others who recognize that sexual health and STDs among youth need to be prioritized.