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Howard County high schools making free condoms available to students

High school students in Howard County will soon be able to get free condoms at their school nurse’s office in a program officials say is aimed at reducing the spread of chlamydia, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted infections.

School officials say they are partnering with county health department and the Maryland Department of Health to make the condoms accessible, and will also provide information about health and sexual diseases.

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“We wanted to meet the needs of the students … [and] wanted to be more proactive,” said Kerrie Wagaman, Howard County public schools’ coordinator of health services.

Howard will become one of only a few local school districts that provide condoms for students — Montgomery County started a similar program in the fall, and Baltimore City has done so for years.

Howard’s program is scheduled to launch at the end of this month. Condoms will be available in the nurse’s office in all 12 high schools, as well as the Applications and Research Laboratory — the system’s career and technology center — and its alternative school, The Homewood Center.

Students making a request will receive a bag of 10 latex condoms, provided by the county health department. Each bag includes a fact sheet on proper use. Students can also ask questions of the nurse.

Receipt of condoms will be confidential; parents and guardians will not be informed, according to a description of the program posted on the school system’s website.

Wagaman said the program is not intended for the school system to impose on anyone’s values, and the website notes that the program “encourages condom use among sexually active HCPSS high school students to help reduce the number of [sexually transmitted infections].”

In a statement Superintendent Michael Martirano, who approved the initiative, called the “significant increase” of sexually transmitted diseases among Howard County teens “terribly alarming.”

In 2017, cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the county were the highest in a decade. Across all age levels, the county recorded 1,136 cases of chlamydia and 235 cases of gonorrhea, according to the state health department, compared to 461 cases of chlamydia and 91 cases of gonorrhea in 2007.

Of the 2017 numbers, people age 15 to 24 accounted for 775 of all chlamydia cases in the county (68 percent), and 101 of the gonorrhea cases (43 percent).

Members of the Howard County school board did not vote on the condom program, but did receive information about it early this month and had an opportunity to ask questions and provide input, according to a schools spokesman.

Board Chairwoman Mavis Ellis and Vice Chairwoman Kirsten Coombs were unavailable for comment, but through the spokesman Coombs issued a statement saying the board is pleased to have the partnership with the county health department.

“The board shares the concerns of our community health providers as we see increased infection rates in the county and supports leveraging community resources to ensure the health and well-being of our students,” Coombs said in the statement.

Caroline Walker, the system’s executive director of student well-being, agreed, saying the goal is “for the students to be well.” She said condoms can be expensive, and by making them available the system can help students live healthier lives.

A representative for the PTA Council of Howard County could not be reached for comment.

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Dr. Jacqueline Dougé, medical director of the county health department’s bureau of child health, said sexually transmitted infections have been increasing for several years in Howard and statewide, and having condoms in school is a way to “prevent and reduce the risk.”

Statewide, there were 44,967 cases of three diseases — chlamydia, gonorrhea and also syphilis — in 2017, a 10.5 percent increase from the year before, according to the Maryland Health Department. The Centers for Disease Control reported nearly 2.3 million cases of those three diseases in the United States in 2017, about 200,000 more than in 2016.

Health officials say that, left untreated, gonorrhea in women can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pain, infertility and ectopic pregnancy. It can cause testicle pain in men. Chlamydia can cause infertility problems, and mothers can pass the disease to babies, causing problems with their eyesight.

In September, Howard County schools began providing test kits for sexually transmitted infections to students who wanted to have testing done, Wagaman said. The initiative is co-sponsored and funded with a grant from the state health department.

The testing is also confidential. Officials said results are shared with the student and, only if positive, with the county health department. The information is not reported to the student’s parents, the school system or any other organization.

“The kits … are another support to ensure the safety and well-being of our students,” Martirano said in his statement.

Montgomery County Public Schools and that county’s health department established a similar partnership in the fall. Since October, Montgomery high school students can receive a bag of five condoms and STI prevention information in all high school health rooms.

Derek Turner, a spokesman for Montgomery County schools, said that before the program was implemented, the system heard from parents who were in favor — and also those with concerns. Over the past few months however, the system hasn’t received a lot of feedback or concerns from families, he said.

He said Montgomery’s motives were also about finding ways to curb sexual disease. “We know that … prevention through condoms is one of those tactics,” Turner said.

For decades, Baltimore City schools have provided condoms as well as other forms of birth control to students. Oral contraceptives, patches, shots and the “morning-after pill” are some of the options available at city school health centers.

Public school officials in Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Anne Arundel counties said they do not provide condoms to students in schools. In Prince George’s County, condoms are distributed at four school-based health centers sponsored by the county health department, according to a spokesperson.

Meanwhile, Howard County officials say there has been a slight decline in teenage birth rates in recent years. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a nonprofit focused on health issues, there were eight births per every 1,000 females age 15 to 19 in the county last year, down from 10 and 11, respectively, in 2017 and 2016.

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The county health department tracks teen birth rates; not teen pregnancy rates.

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Andrea McDaniel and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Erika Butler contributed to this article.

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