As a public health advocate, the inconsistency in South Carolina’s school policies regarding sex education greatly concerns me. Multiple studies suggest that a lack of appropriate sex education and constrained access to sexual health services are key contributing factors of unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV/AIDS. South Carolina is among the top 10 states in the U.S. for the highest rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2014 Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance.
In 2013, The New Morning Foundation released a report, “A Sterling Opportunity: 25 Years After the Comprehensive Health Education Act,” indicating that the majority of South Carolina’s school districts were not in compliance with the reproductive health education aspects of the 1988 Comprehensive Health Education Act (CHEA). While there have been efforts to standardize health education, gaps remain in implementation, and many districts remain non-compliant with policies regarding reproductive health education instruction.
Much of my advocacy work is centered on the HIV epidemic within our state. Our state ranked 16th among the 50 states in the number of HIV diagnoses in 2011. For over a decade, our capital city of Columbia has ranked in the top 10 cities in America with the highest HIV infection rate, with Charleston and Greenville in the top 50 cities during that same time period.
Because people are often diagnosed very late or have difficulties accessing health care, our state ranks 8th in the numbers of AIDS diagnoses. Adding an estimated 858 South Carolinians who were diagnosed with HIV in 2011, our state now has 14,044 citizens living with HIV. Sadly, from the beginning of the HIV epidemic in America until now, nearly 8,800 South Carolinians have lost their lives to HIV/AIDS. Timely comprehensive health education could have certainly helped to mitigate this tragic health care crisis.
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As someone who has lived with HIV for over 31 years, I have certainly seen the loss of health, loss of productivity, high medical costs, and the heart-wrenching loss of life that the HIV epidemic has brought to our state. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control, with the help of concerned citizens participating in the Ryan White programs and HIV Planning Council, is doing what it can to care for those with HIV, along with trying to prevent the infection rate from continuing to climb in our state; but more is needed. Comprehensive age-appropriate, medically accurate information about sexually transmitted diseases would be a great step toward preventing more South Carolinians from being infected with HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis or chlamydia.
Tell Them, a nonpartisan advocacy network of over 18,000 reproductive health advocates, is working to change this lack of basic health education in South Carolina’s public schools.
Currently, proposed legislation in South Carolina (H.3447) would update South Carolina’s 27-year-old sex education law, requiring students to receive age-appropriate, medically accurate information about pregnancy prevention and sexually transmitted disease protection. Tell Them is working to ensure this legislation becomes reality.
I share Tell Them's belief that medical fact, not politically minded rhetoric, should guide classroom discussion of reproductive health. That's why I am a member of this organization. If you believe South Carolina students deserve to know how to protect themselves from preventable diseases, please join me in Tell Them's movement to put people before politics by visiting www.tellthemsc.org.
Michael Bivens, a Rock Hill resident, is a volunteer, advocate and peer educator on public health issues.