Louisiana faces a public health crisis in the form of high rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In 2016, Louisiana ranked first in the nation for primary and secondary syphilis rates, according to a November study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Our state also ranked third in the nation for HIV rates, with the New Orleans and Baton Rouge metro areas at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively.
The rates among young people underscore the crisis. Louisiana has the highest rate of syphilis among adolescents, the second highest rate of gonorrhea and chlamydia among adolescents, and the third highest rate of HIV diagnoses among adolescents. Louisiana's teen pregnancy rates have fallen in recent years (as they have elsewhere in the U.S.), but we still rank seventh-highest.
This crisis is very real, but state lawmakers refuse to address it. Year after year, New Orleans and Baton Rouge legislators push for comprehensive sex education in Louisiana, but their conservative colleagues almost always balk — often at the urging of powerful evangelical lobbies such as the Louisiana Family Forum. For example, the state Senate last spring rejected the notion of merely conducting an anonymous survey of high school students to gauge their risk behaviors. The survey could have determined the kinds of programming Louisiana schools need to address the needs of students who live on the front lines of this health crisis.
It's past the time for lawmakers to stop being willfully blind to one of Louisiana's biggest public health crises. Teenagers think they know a lot about sex, but what they don't know is why Louisiana is at the bottom of U.S. public health rankings. Most Louisiana students get no formal sex education at all, other than officialdom recommending abstinence. Teens need a comprehensive strategy that includes abstinence, yes, but also information about reproduction, birth control and avoiding disease and pregnancy.
The New Orleans City Council and the Orleans Parish School Board have pleaded for change, but the council can act only as a bully pulpit — and local lawmakers already recognize the problem. And it's not just city officials who want change; parents also demand it.
A statewide survey recently found that a vast majority of Louisiana parents want sex education in schools. The survey found that more than 80 percent of Louisiana parents want their children to learn about STD prevention, peer pressure and sex, self-esteem building and their bodies, and healthy relationships — among a wide array of sexual health topics. The survey gathered responses from across Louisiana and should serve as a wake-up call for legislators statewide.
Geaux Talk (www.geauxtalk.org), a new statewide campaign from the Louisiana Public Health Institute, is spreading the word about the importance of comprehensive sex ed at home and at school. Campaign leaders hope to empower parents and caregivers to demand that sex education be part of students' curriculum.
Louisiana legislators who have turned down sex ed reform measures in the past say they want more data to see if voters want it. Thedata is in, and it's conclusive. Lawmakers must face this public health crisis by approving comprehensive sex education programs in Louisiana schools.