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Thursday, Feb 16 2012 09:00 PM

State launches mail-order condom program for teens

BY KELLIE SCHMITT Californian staff writer kschmitt@bakersfield.com

In an attempt to address Kern County's alarmingly high rates of sexually transmitted disease and teen births, a new health initiative will let local teenagers order condoms online and receive the free shipment in the mail.

The program, supported by the California Department of Public Health's STD Control Branch and the nonprofit California Family Health Council, will also be reaching out to teen-friendly clinics and organizations and providing them with free condoms.

A searchable map on the organization's TeenSource.org website will list those locations as well as places that already provide free condoms.

While supporters hope the move will encourage safer sex, others argue more condoms aren't the solution to the STD epidemic, and that a mail-order approach violates a family's privacy.

The groups selected Kern County for the home mailer program -- along with Alameda, Sacramento, San Joaquin and parts of San Francisco counties -- because of its high rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea among teenagers.

In 2008, 2009 and 2010, Kern has had the worst incidence rate of chlamydia in California, according to data provided by the Kern County Department of Public Health. For gonorrhea, the county has hovered around the 5th worst spot out of all 58 counties. And, for teen births, the county's incidence rate has vacillated between the worst and second worst statewide in recent years.

"Usually when we see high numbers, there's a lack of access to comprehensive sex education and reproductive services," said Amy Moy, vice president of public affairs for the Family Health Council. "There may also be a culture in the community where things like comprehensive sex education and related issues aren't discussed and resources aren't available."

The program, which launched on Tuesday, is an attempt to plug that gap, reaching teenagers where they are: online and at home, Moy said. The teens, age 12 to 19, can order the condoms at TeenSource.org, and they'll receive multiple messages letting them know when they can expect the package. One order of 10 condoms will be available every month.

The goods will come in a nondescript yellow envelope, which will include condoms, lubricant and educational materials, such as how to use a condom and information on STDs. In case the envelope gets into the wrong hands, there will also be a slip detailing whom to contact if a package was received in error.

"That's to help in case parents receive the packets and teens are not ready to have a conversation about it," Moy said.

There will be a link on the group's website helping parents -- who may have seen the materials or heard about the effort --discuss sexual education with their kids.

While the organization says they agree the best way to avoid STDs and pregnancy is to avoid sex, the reality is that Kern County teenagers are clearly not practicing abstinence, Moy said.

"We can't keep our heads in the sand and pretend there isn't a problem," she said. "We know teens are engaging and we want to make sure they're as safe as possible."

The organization pointed to numerous studies showing that providing birth control access does not encourage a teenager to have sex.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, re-issued the following statement in 2005: "While many condom education and availability programs have been shown to have modest effects on condom use, there is no evidence that these programs contribute to increased sexual activity among adolescents."

Improved access will be especially helpful in rural parts of Kern County, where teenagers face barriers to finding protection, said Pedro Elias, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood in Kern County.

In isolated rural communities, teenagers may face heightened issues with embarrassment and confidentiality, especially if a family member or acquaintance works at the area's only health center. And, sometimes owners of convenience stores might not stock condoms based on their own religious beliefs or convictions, he added.

But not everyone's convinced that providing more access to condoms is the best way to address the county's troubling statistics.

Condoms are far from perfect when it comes to promoting safe sex and lowering teen pregnancy rates, said Linda Davis, executive director of the Bakersfield Pregnancy Center, an organization that emphasizes abstinence.

Her fear is that teenagers will perceive condoms as offering complete protection, even though there's still some risk for STDs and pregnancy. She is also concerned that the latest mail-order effort will be viewed as permission for teenagers to engage in sex.

Davis doesn't think home mailers will go over well, especially in Kern County. The move may be seen as an invasion of privacy since they would be sent to one's home.

"I would think the overwhelming majority of parents in Kern County wouldn't think this is a good idea," she said. "And I don't think their kids would have the nerve to request them."

While the Kern County Department of Public Health isn't directly involved with the project, the premise makes sense, said Denise Smith, director of disease control. The public health department already has condoms available for people who come into their clinics.

"It'd be best if teens didn't have sex, but if they're going to do it anyway, they need to protect themselves," Smith said. "As a public health department, we have an obligation to provide education and tools."

Smith said she's interested to see if the home mailer effort is a success.

"I don't know if people will want condoms mailed to their house," Smith said. "I guess we'll find out."

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