Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about the STI crisis and what can be done.
Sexually transmitted infections — the infections that lead to sexually transmitted diseases — have been on the rise for years. In 2019, the rates of STDs had increased for six years consecutively, nearing a 30% collective increase since 2015.
The trend is a stark reversal from roughly 20 years prior when gonorrhea cases were at all-time lows, syphilis had nearly been eradicated and chlamydia testing and identification had dramatically improved.
Local data reflects similar increases. A 2019 annual state report by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for STIs showed the state experienced the highest rates on record for the same three diseases. It was the same year a new bipartisan law related to sexual health and education in school curriculum was passed.
Then the pandemic hit.
At first, rates appeared to drop as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on our health care system and prevented easy access to STI testing. As restrictions lifted and testing resumed, the weekly STD cases increased 101% for chlamydia, 135% for gonorrhea and 151% for syphilis by December of 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Data for last year is still largely under review, but public health experts are deeply worried the rates are still increasing rapidly. Efforts to fight the public health crisis remain tough amid the global pandemic, slowed congressional funding and ongoing efforts by some Republicans to overturn the free preventative care that helps reduce STIs within the Affordable Care Act.
Aside from the obvious health implications of STDs — which can include symptomatic disease or in some cases death — STDs cost taxpayers billions in health care costs. New infections from 2018 alone are expected to hold a $16 billion lifetime price tag — all fully preventable diseases. Of course, those figures also assume the infections remain treatable despite that some, such as gonorrhea, are quickly becoming drug-resistant.
Certainly, we know how to curb STI rates through ample education, testing and treatments. Yet we clearly aren’t educating our youth about sexual health well enough if nearly half of all new infections are in young populations.
This brings me back to the 2019 bipartisan bill passed by Colorado legislators regarding sex education curriculum.
Cosponsored in part by two now congressional candidates Rep. Yadira Caraveo and Sen. Don Coram, the bill joined at least two other laws in the state directly regarding Sex Ed curriculum. Primarily it stated that schools choosing to teach sexual health and education must also teach about consent.
And that was the catch — as a local control state, it only applies to schools that opt to teach it.
Colorado is currently one of only 12 states that does not mandate sex and/or HIV education as part of the school health curriculum. If, like me, you’re wondering how many schools opt out, it turns out not even the Colorado Department of Education knows.
After days of back and forth emails and calls to several employees at state departments, boards and agencies, the answer kept coming back that of Colorado’s 178 school districts and 1,914 schools, it was unknown how many had chosen to opt out.
When asked why CDE doesn’t track which schools opt out, or even which schools follow the at least three laws currently in place, the response was, “Since it’s not statutorily required, CDE does not collect it.” True enough, tracking sex ed curriculum in Colorado schools does not appear to be one of the reports required.
What little I could find for how many schools opt in or out is the following:
First, only eight school districts and five additional schools have been awarded funding via the same 2019 law that also provided limited sexual education grant funds. Overseen by CDPHE, a spokesperson replied via email that roughly 70% of the funds have been distributed to date based on the priority criteria provided.
Districts awarded include Adams ($65,924), Cañon City ($99,966), East Grand ($43,570), Denver ($110,000) and Jeffco ($19,952) public schools, Lake County ($100,000), South Conejos ($100,000) and South Route Re3 ($45,400).
Individual schools included Hope Online Learning Academy ($62,242), RiseUp Community School ($42,336), Atlas Preparatory School ($25,000), Eastlake High School ($20,015) and Denver School of Science and Technology ($23,000).
An additional three applications were said to have been rejected, with funding since offered, yet as grant money is awarded only to those who apply others may choose to self-fund — hardly a method for determining which schools opt in or out.
Second, at least one school district, Lewis Palmer, has publicly stated the district would not be teaching under the new 2019 law. Many more schools also said they wanted to legally challenge the law. It’s unclear if there has been, or will be, any enforcement.
Third, a DPS spokesperson confirmed new regulations recommended by their school board were underway for the 2023-24 school year, noting they were aware many of their schools exhibited “inconsistencies and inequities in if and how sex education is being provided.” Requests for specific examples and schools were deferred to additional CORA requests.
Fourth, any related survey efforts appear to be difficult due to a lack of willingness to participate on the part of many schools. In October, several schools in Eagle County objected to a standard survey based on new questions about sexual activity. Another effort by the University of Colorado was reported to have collected its highest number of school responses yet, while still falling well under half of the state’s centers.
To me, this paints a clear picture: Despite Colorado’s willingness to be a clear leader on some sexual health topics such as reducing teen pregnancies, it seems we’re hesitant as a state to make sure we’re talking with teens about what else can happen between the sheets. But without more efforts to have clear conversations of sexual health, and without the teeth to track and enforce it, we’re most definitely setting our kids up for failure — and possibly a lifelong or deadly STD.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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