About a third of Philadelphia’s public high schools are welcoming students back to class this week with free condom dispensers. The initiative to increase sexual health resources in 22 of the city’s 51 high schools is part of an effort to address high rates of STDs among adolescents.
Reuters reports that more than 400 public schools across the country currently make condoms available to students through a nurse, guidance counselor, or other school personnel. Less than ten percent of schools make condoms directly available to teens without an adult intermediary — in a basket, bowl, or vending machine — as Philadelphia’s schools have started to do.
The 22 schools that have added the dispensers to their nurses’ offices were identified by the city’s Health Department as having the most serious rates of STDs, including HIV:
It’s a pilot designed to address “an epidemic of sexually transmitted disease in adolescents in Philadelphia,” said Donald F. Schwarz, the deputy mayor for health and opportunity. Since April 2011, the city has given away about four million condoms, and now, STD rates are falling.
But, Schwarz pointed out, 25 percent of new HIV infections in Philadelphia are teens, and that’s a major worry.
Some city high schools — the dozen that have “health resource centers” — already dispense free condoms. And the Health Department also provides them at city high schools when they go in to test teens for STDs, as they do every year voluntarily with a parent’s consent.
The pilot is the next logical step, Schwarz said.
Unfortunately, the troubling trend of high numbers of adolescents contracting the HIV virus isn’t specific to Philadelphia. The Centers for Disease Control warns that young Americans between the ages of 13 and 24 contribute to a quarter of the U.S.’s new HIV infections each year, partly because they aren’t getting regularly tested and are unaware they have the virus.
If Philadelphia wants to take additional steps to address the epidemic, public officials also might want to consider updating the sexual health education that students receive. Pennsylvania does mandate HIV education in public schools, but doesn’t require that health curricula meet standards for medical accuracy, and doesn’t mandate that religion cannot influence sexual education materials — which means students may receive inaccurate information about how HIV is contracted and spread, like the public school students in California who were told they can get the virus from kissing and prevent STDs with “plenty of rest.”