With STD rates on the rise, sex-ed bill returns to the Capitol

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Government health officials testified Monday that rates of sexually transmitted diseases are increasing, particularly among urban women, and that a proposed bill to increase funding for testing, treatment and education might stem the steady rise in rates and curb teen pregnancy.

The bill was heard by the Health, Housing and Family Security Committee, where it passed by a voice vote on Monday.

Senate File 273 includes the Comprehensive Family Life and Sexuality Education language that almost made it to Gov. Tim Pawlenty last year. That bill would have mandated a baseline for sex education in Minnesota’s public schools. As part of last year’s negotiations, Pawlenty told legislators they’d need to hash out the details of the bill with the conservative Minnesota Family Council. Needless to say, the bill was withdrawn during conference committee.

This year’s version, coauthored by DFL Sens. John Marty (Roseville) and Sandy Rummel (White Bear Lake), has similar provisions, but contains an addition: funds for testing and treatment for chlamydia and gonorrhea in the form of family planning special project grants similar to those Pawlenty proposes to cut from the state budget.

David Johnson, epidemiologist for the Minneapolis Department of Health and Family Support, said the city’s chlamydia rate is three times higher than elsewhere in Minnesota. If left unchecked, chlamydia can wreak havoc on a woman’s reproductive organs, and infection of a newborn infant through childbirth can lead to blindness.

Because some communities are seeing such high rates, aggressive action in needed, Johnson said. “The amount of disease in the community, the rate is so high that it is virtually sustaining,” he said. “In these communities, we need targeted screening in order to bring rates down.”

Peter Carr, who heads the STD and HIV Program at the Minnesota Department of Health, said the under-served communities need the most targeting. “One of the defining characteristics of STDs in Minnesota is the disparities in communities of color. They have rates 45 times higher than for whites.”

The funding in the bill is aimed to target extra resources to those communities that are most impacted by high STD rates. But that doesn’t mean suburbs are a safe haven.

Said Kathy Wick of the Dakota County Public Health Department, “I am here to dispel any myths that living in the suburbs protects you from STDs.”

Wick argues for increased education in those areas. “It’s not for lack of health resources, money or insurance that we have an STD problem in Dakota County,” she said. “It’s a lack of knowledge.”

Experts testified that the current sex education programs in schools are a patchwork, with schools dedicating differing amounts of time to the topic and it from an abstinence-until-marriage model — a model that numerous studies has shown to be ineffective.

Advocates for the bill say that educating young people now will save the state money later. Deb Wilkens-Costello of St. Paul’s Family Tree Clinic predicts that Minnesota will find benefits from a consistent sex ed curriculum that reduces teenage pregnancy.

“The state would feel an immediate impact to Medicare and welfare costs for years to come,” she said. “The state spends $120 million per year for teenage births.”

With a huge budget deficit and a governor with close religious right ties, Sen. John Marty said the bill likely won’t pass. But still he is hopeful.

“We can’t afford not to make the expenditure.”

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