Leaders Called Upon to Support Sexual Health

If you practice safe sex and have regular checkups for sexual health, good for you. You’re one of the few.

Despite the medical community’s various longstanding guidelines for sexual health — for instance, promoting condoms to lower the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and birth control to curb unwanted pregnancy — these tenets aren’t always followed.

In many cases, the responsibility lies with individuals. But the editors of the journal PLoS Medicine now are taking political and religious leaders to task for their perceived failure to support larger initiatives.

"Although narrowly focused political and religious perspectives have in the past hampered policy making to improve sexual health, today’s politicians and religious leaders must redouble their leadership in tackling these problems, precisely because they occur at the intersection of health, culture, religion, and politics," the authors write in a May 25 editorial. In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified sexual health as its own area of specialized focus. Previously, it had been considered a subset of reproductive health. There has been resistance to its most fundamental principles even in the United States. In many states, for example, health insurance doesn't cover birth control or certain forms of it. And for years, the federal response to risky sexual behaviors was abstinence-only programs. The efficacy of this approach is widely questioned.

As a result, the authors write, we have some sad stats:

  • There are 19 million new cases of STDs each year in the United States, at an estimated cost of $15.9 billion annually to the national health-care system, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • In 1999, there were 340 million new cases of STDs worldwide — syphilis, gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and trichomoniasis — in men and women ages 15-49, according to the WHO.
  • Financial support for a U.S. government program that funds low-cost, confidential family planning services is 61 percent lower today than it was in 1980, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The risk for sexually transmitted diseases is what initially motivated the editors to write their editorial. "The original inspiration for the piece came when I noticed that the CDC was running an STD awareness month (http://www.cdcnpin.org/stdawareness/sam.htm)," Susan Jones, one of the authors of the statement, told LiveScience. "When I started to think about sexually transmitted infections, and the burden of disease that they cause, I realized that inequities in sexual health cover a whole range of issues." So the authors' final statement focuses on five areas for action on sexual health, as initially outlined by the International Planned Parenthood Foundation — addressing unsafe abortions, access to services and information for marginalized individuals, access to contraception, advocacy for better legislation and services, and action on HIV/AIDS. To be sure, sexual-health awareness on a global scale is a large undertaking, and one that's not going to be resolved quickly or easily. But by taking personal responsibility for sexual health and urging local leaders to spread the word, significant gains can clearly be made.

Sally Law has written about health and sexuality for the Cleveland Clinic, and has appeared regularly as a guest host on Sirius Radio. Her column, The Science of Sex, appears weekly on LiveScience.