The news of a surge in Kansas syphilis cases is concerning, not just because of what it means for those with the disease, but what it could mean for the next generation of Kansans.
According to The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Tim Carpenter this week: “The number of documented syphilis cases in Kansas nearly tripled during the past five years to deepen the health risks faced by newborns. … The finding contained in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest report on sexually transmitted diseases showed Kansas ranked 15th in the nation in terms of the number of babies born with syphilis.”
No one wants to talk about sexually transmitted diseases. It’s uncomfortable, and there is a tendency to stake out extreme positions. On the one hand, assuming that young people will always seek to have sex without commitment or consequences. On the other, advocating that the only sex anyone ever has is in the context of a marriage or long-term, committed relationship.
The fact is, most people today — and for most of human history — have lived somewhere in a gray area between those extremes. Most people do not actually seek out an unending parade of sexual partners, even in their wildest times. On the other hand, an abstinence-only regimen doesn’t seem to reflect most people’s reality either. (Indeed, if one looks at the rates of sexually transmitted diseases in nursing homes, it doesn’t reflect most older adults’ reality either.)
We need to have these difficult conversations. And we most need to have frank conversations. Young people need to understand the risks and effects of diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea — diseases that have sometimes been ignored in favor of prevention efforts for HIV/AIDS.
Beyond knowing what the diseases are, young people should know how to prevent and address them. That means they should know about protection and about being tested and treated by their physicians.
Regardless of what some people may feel, shame is not good public health policy. It is possible to both walk and chew gum at the same time, and teachers and public health officials should be able to both emphasize that sexual responsibility is important, while also advocating condoms, birth control, and regular consultations with an informed health professional.
It’s not in the 1950s. We should be able to acknowledge in public that people have sex. Straight people, gay people, young people, old people, married people, unmarried people, believers and atheists.
They all at some point have sex. It’s the most basic of human activities. We should be able as a state and society to make sure that the health of our residents — and their children — is safeguarded for the future.