As a pediatrician and parent of children attending Howard County Schools, I am concerned about the actions taken by the county school board regarding member Cynthia Vaillancourt's effort to initiate a discussion about teens' access to condoms ("Condom flap reveals childish school board," Oct. 19).
Reducing unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections among teens is a national public health goal. In 2013, Maryland ranked 13th in the nation for teen births, with 24 adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 per thousand giving birth to a child.
Maryland ranks seventh in the nation for new H.I.V. infections and 21st for chlamydia infections. Some 40 percent of students in the state have had sexual intercourse and nearly two in five of those did not use condoms the last time they had sex.
While students in Howard County have performed well academically, that has not exempted them from danger posed by STIs. The Maryland Department of Mental Health and Hygiene reports that for the 15- to 19-year-old age group, "every county is a chlamydia hot spot."
While we may all want to believe STIs won't affect our children, the public health reality does not support that view and the complications of STIs are serious. For girls, the possible complications of chlamydia include pelvic inflammatory disease, tubal infertility and chronic pelvic pain.
Boys may develop epididymitis, a painful condition involving the area just behind testicles. There are also associated STI impacts on health-related quality of life, emotional well-being and relationship status which have the potential to distract students from the activities of daily living, including their school work.
There is no question that Howard County teens need access to condoms. Any access barrier posed by local supermarkets or pharmacies is unacceptable. Further, the Howard County School Board has an obligation to discuss health-related aspects of student welfare and to effectively work in partnership with the public health department and other community agencies so that learning is unencumbered by health status.
I applaud Ms. Vaillancourt for raising this public health issue for discussion. Rather than sanctioning her, this incident suggests that we actually need more open dialogue to ensure that our teens are knowledgeable, have access to evidence-based comprehensive sex education and high-quality reproductive health services.
Teens need to be empowered to make healthy and smart decisions about sex. Most importantly, we should carefully weigh our choices on Nov. 4 to ensure that we have a school board of creative and informed individuals who may have different perspectives but who are willing to stand up for Howard County youth even when it makes some of us uncomfortable.
The writer is a pediatrician and STI researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.