Ineffectiveness of condoms stressed in presentation

Deborah Hirsch

“Safe sex” doesn’t guarantee protection from sexually transmitted diseases, Chicago nurse Debbie Olson told a group of about 20 Northwestern students at a slide presentation Tuesday night.

“When I was a nurse (in a clinic) we were told to let people do what they wanted as long as they were safe,” Olson said. “But I can’t do that anymore. I have to give the truth.”

Olson has spent the last 10 years teaching middle and high school students about sexually transmitted diseases through Project Reality, a nonprofit organization for sexual education in public schools.

“When I went to school we studied syphilis, gonorrhea and crabs – that was it,” Olson said. Now there are more than 25 known STDs and adolescents should be aware of the serious consequences of contracting one of these diseases, she said.

“Somebody’s been telling our kids, ‘Just don’t get pregnant,’ but anal sex, oral sex and mutual masturbation are also causes of STDs,” Olson said.

Olson said she tries to encourage young people to consider an abstinent lifestyle. “Unfortunately, society doesn’t support this. But once you’re sexually active, you can stop and rethink your behavior,” she said.

Because students have been taught to use condoms, many kids assume they are completely protected from STDs, Olson said. But condoms do not cover the entire genital area, which means chlamydia, HPV (genital warts) and other diseases transmitted through skin-to-skin contact can still be contracted during sexual intercourse.

“You’d need a wet suit rather than a condom,” she said, pointing to a slide of a woman with an STD-related infection on her stomach.

Condoms are especially ineffective in preventing the spread of the three most prevalent diseases: chlamydia, HPV and herpes. Sexually transmitted diseases can be viral or bacterial, but only bacterial diseases such as chlamydia and syphilis can be cured with antibiotics. Viral diseases like AIDS and HPV can be suppressed but not cured.

Most students are surprised when they find out that AIDS is the least common STD and HPV the most comMonday, because AIDS gets more publicity, Olson said. In reality, HPV claims more lives than AIDS by causing fatal cervical cancer in more than 4,800 women each year. It also can lead to infertility.

“What’s kind of startling to me is how much of a women’s issue this is,” said Chris Burnett, who helped organize the event through the Undergraduate Pre-Medical Society.

Chlamydia is known as “the silent epidemic” because symptoms may not appear for years. By that time, the damage to the cervix may have already caused infertility, Burnett said.

In the past 25 years, the spread of STDs has escalated with increasing use of condoms, Burnett said. “I hope that people realize the serious infections that are out there besides HIV.”

Condoms are not only ineffective in preventing all physical STDs, but emotional and social problems as well, Olson said.

“If you are abstinent from sexual relationships you are building other relationships,” she said. “This is something I feel is lacking from our society.”

Because sexual education programs nationwide have been successful in reducing numbers of pregnant teens, the federal government has been granting more funding to non-profit organizations like Project Reality, said Libby Gray, public relations director.

“Our society as a whole is not getting the facts about STDs,” she said. “It’s also a big factor on college campuses because students are exploring relationships and sex may be a part of that.”