Right Diagnosis, Wrong Remedy

Following is the uncut version of a letter that ran on the Washington Post editorial page on Sunday, April 13, 2008. The Post reduced the letter for space reasons with the author's permission.

Courtland Milloy's “Ignorance Is Bliss, And Then You Get an STD” (April 2), roars out of the box with truths rarely seen in print. But then it inexplicably devolves into an endorsement of the failed, condom-based approach to sex education championed by former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders.

Milloy is properly alarmed at the millions of annual infections of Human Papillomavirus, which cause nearly all cases of cervical cancer. But he does not mention the most crucial fact: Research available from the Centers for Disease Control shows that condoms, while providing some protection against STDs such as HIV, have not been proven to be similarly effective against HPV. The following is from the CDC's current Fact Sheet on HPV:

Because HPV is so common and usually invisible, the only sure way to prevent it is not to have sex. Even people with only one lifetime sex partner can get HPV, if their partner was infected with HPV. Condoms (used all the time and the right way) may lower your chances of passing HPV to a partner or developing HPV-related diseases. But HPV can infect areas that are not covered by a condom—so condoms may not fully protect against HPV. http://www.cdc.gov/STD/HPV/STDFact-HPV-and-men.htm

For decades, millions of girls have been told by sex educators that they will be “safe” if the boy wears a condom. Now, 1 in 4 teen girls and half of all African American teen girls have an STD, the most prevalent being HPV.

What's the media response? Most often, it involves quoting experts who blame abstinence programs, which get only a tenth as much in annual federal funds as the money awarded to the condom-based “comprehensive” approach.

Mr. Milloy says that “frank talk” about sex ended when Ms Elders was forced to resign in 1994 after advocating the teaching of masturbation and other “controversial remedies” such as “making sex education fun while keeping it real.” 

He finishes with a shot at abstinence by quoting Elders saying, “Those vows of abstinence break a lot easier than a latex condom.”

Cute, but how about telling kids the truth, which is that even if the condom does not break, you're still at risk to get HPV if your partner is infected?  The condom might help a little, but it's no guarantee. Why do the media continue to ignore this glaring fact?

It's time, indeed, for everyone to get “real” about how HPV and other STDs are being spread to unsuspecting teens.   

Robert Knight is director of the Culture and Media Institute at the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Virginia.