The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a leading doctors’ group representing about 60,000 pediatricians across the country, is encouraging schools to make sexual health resources more readily available to teens. In a new policy statement published in the Pediatrics journal, the group points out that condoms should be accessible in high schools so students don’t necessarily have to ask for them.
While teen births have been steadily declining over the past several years, the U.S. still has the highest rate of sexually transmitted infections of any other country in the developed world. And the AAP pointed out that the nation’s STD epidemic is largely fueled by teens: young people between the ages of 15 and 24 acquire nearly half of all new sexually transmitted infections. That’s where condoms come in. Dr. Rebecca O’Brien, the policy statement’s lead author, told Reuters Health that this type of barrier method is particularly important to protect against herpes and HIV.
But teens will only use condoms if isn’t too difficult to get them.
“For teens to use them, they have to have them available, and they’re not going to come in necessarily asking for them,” O’Brien pointed out. “Having them available not just in healthcare settings is really important. Have them in the mall. They should be everywhere.”
AAP researchers pointed out that there’s still some resistance to making condoms available to teens, largely because people assume that will encourage a greater number of adolescents to become sexually active. That’s not actually the case, though. Research has found that providing youth with contraceptive resources makes it more likely that they will practice safe sex, but doesn’t increase their sexual activity.
The pediatrician group also found a strong correlation between comprehensive sex ed and condom use. Compared to the teens who take sex ed classes in school, the adolescents who don’t receive any formal sex ed instruction are half as likely to use a condom when they first become sexually active. And that discrepancy continues: the kids who don’t receive formal sex ed are also less likely to use condoms consistently in the future. In its policy recommendation, the AAP recommends that programs to expand access to condoms in schools should be accompanied by comprehensive sex ed curricula.
Some schools in areas with particularly high STD rates are already trying out creative methods of distributing contraception. About a third of Philadelphia’s public high schools installed vending machines full of free condoms at the beginning of the year, hoping to reach the teens who may have felt too embarrassed to walk into the nurse’s office to ask for condoms. But that’s an anomaly. The majority of public schools still don’t make condoms available to students without requiring them to go through an intermediary, like a school nurse or guidance counselor.
Planned Parenthood has issued a statement in praise of the AAP’s new policy. “This a major step forward for getting more teens access to condoms and sex education,” Leslie Kantor, Planned Parenthood’s vice president of education, noted. “Some schools have been hesitant to provide young people with programs and access to condoms, and the pediatricians’ strong, clear statement serves as an urgent call for policymakers, school administrators and parents to do everything they can to give teens what they need to stay healthy.”