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On AIDS Awareness Day, A Push For Sex Education

On A Day Dedicated To Awareness, A Push For Comprehensive Sex Education

By HILARY WALDMAN, Courant Staff Writer

April 24, 2008

It wasn't a typical alliance: teenagers and AIDS activists rallying together on the steps of the state Capitol Wednesday morning.

But according to members of both groups, who teamed up to promote AIDS awareness and the need for comprehensive sex education in schools, the causes have a lot in common.

"Comprehensive sex education is the front line of AIDS prevention," said Shawn Lang, director of public policy for the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition.

Since antiretroviral drug cocktails became available in 1996, cases of HIV and AIDS in young children have become rare because the drugs seem to stave off transmission of the infection from mothers to their babies during childbirth.

But teens who engage in risky behavior, especially unprotected sex, seem to be perpetuating the scourge among young people. Nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of new AIDS cases among adolescents between 13 and 19 years old increased from 290 in 1998 to 510 in 2005.

Locally, only five new HIV cases were reported among Connecticut children younger than 12 in 2007, according to the state Department of Public Health. But during the same period, 143 new cases of HIV and AIDS were reported among people ages 20 to 29. Many of them, Lang said, became infected as teenagers.

"Our last seven cases were teens ages 14 to 19," said Danielle Warren-Dias, a case manager in the pediatric HIV/AIDS program at Connecticut Children's Medical Center. "We thought we would be shrinking our program; now we're expanding."

Warren-Dias said six of the seven new cases at the children's hospital were among young men engaged in homosexual activity. She did not describe the seventh case.

The persistence of new HIV and AIDS cases among young people, combined with high rates of other sexually transmitted diseases among Connecticut teens, points to the need for more education about sex both inside and outside of schools, advocates said.

"Adults are scared to talk about it, so the kids are talking to each other and they're getting infected at the ages of 10, 13, 15," said Ryan Grant, 38, of Bridgeport, who said he was infected with HIV when he was 15. "That should not be happening; kids need to be educated."

At the rally and during meetings with lawmakers inside legislative offices Wednesday, AIDS activists and their teenage co-lobbyists from Healthy Teens Connecticut urged passage of a controversial bill that would provide $500,000 in state grants to school districts that offer "medically accurate" health education.

Classes supported by the grants would cover reproduction, puberty, sexually transmitted diseases and how they are contracted, pregnancy and how to prevent it through abstinence or contraception, and other ways to take responsibility for one's own health.

Supporters, including Planned Parenthood of Connecticut, call the program a healthy alternative to unreliable sex education that teens are now getting on the Internet and from friends. Opponents, including some religious groups, fear that it could sexualize youths in the state and drive up teen abortion rates.

The vote on the bill is expected before the end of the legislative session next month.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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