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Published in Print: July 11, 2001, as Health Update

Health Update

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Surgeon General Urges Teaching About Abstinence, Contraception

Sex education programs should encourage abstinence, but also offer young people scientifically valid information about contraception, the U.S. surgeon general urges in a new report.

Dr. David Satcher, the nation's principal physician since 1998, said sex education should "stress the value and benefits of remaining abstinent until involved in a committed, enduring, and mutually monogamous relationship." But, he points out in the report, learning about the use of condoms and other forms of contraception is also a way of protecting people from sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies.

For More Information

Read "The Surgeon General's Call to Action To Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior," from the Office of the Surgeon General.

The report, "The Surgeon General's Call to Action To Promote Sexual Health and Responsible Sexual Behavior," released June 28, suggests that communities should start a dialogue on "sexuality education" and "put systems in place to promote equitable access and respect for all cultural, gender, age, and sexual-orientation groups."

One group was quick to criticize the report for not distinguishing marriage as superior to other forms of "committed, enduring, and mutually monogamous relationships."

"Marriage is not paid the attention it deserves in the report," said Heather Cirmo, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, based in Washington. "Although Dr. Satcher emphasized abstinence, he encouraged people to wait until they find the right person instead of a lifelong marriage partner."

She added that the "call to destigmatize so-called sexual orientation is perhaps the most disheartening component of the report."

The report is based on a two-year review of scientific papers and conferences, including participation by 130 representatives from academic, religious, and education groups, as well as parents and youths.

Among other statements, the report concludes that while no method of contraception, aside from abstinence, is infallible— and that condoms cannot protect against some forms of sexually transmitted diseases—"research is inconclusive about the value of abstinence- only sex education programs."

A greater body of evidence, Dr. Satcher found, supports the value of sex education programs that combine teaching about the importance of abstinence and providing information about condoms and other methods of contraception.

During a press conference last month, White House spokesman Ari Fleisher said that the Bush administration did not endorse the report's findings. He noted that the report "was issued by a surgeon general that [President Bush] did not appoint, a surgeon general who was appointed by the previous administration. The president's overall approach on these matters focuses on abstinence education."


Low Iron and Poor Math Skills

New research that links iron deficiency to lower test scores offers one explanation for why teenage girls often lag behind boys in high school mathematics.

Based on nationally representative data on 5,398 children ages 6 to 16, the study found that students with iron deficiency were more than twice as likely to score below average on standardized math tests. Iron deficiency was found in 3 percent of the youngsters studied, representing 1.2 million school-age children.

The difference in performance was most striking with adolescent girls, according to an article in the June issue of the medical journal Pediatrics. The study was led by Dr. Jill Halterman of the University of Rochester in New York.

"Past studies have shown the superiority of females in math achievement during elementary and middle school years and a reversal of this trend with male superiority (specifically in math and problem- solving) in high school and college years," the researchers write in the article. "This study suggests iron deficiency may contribute to this gender discrepancy by negatively affecting math performance among adolescent girls."

Iron deficiency is the most common blood disorder for children, according to the article. Adolescent girls are particularly susceptible because of a combination of poor diets, iron depletion from rapid growth, and menstruation.

While iron deficiency was fairly uncommon among children ages 6 to 11 in the sample group, it was present in 8.7 percent of the girls studied between the ages of 12 and 16.

Researchers found average math scores for iron- deficient students were roughly 6 points lower than those with normal iron levels, and teenage girls with iron deficiency scored on average more than 8 points lower than other adolescent girls.


Driver Education

The United States could dramatically reduce the No. 1 killer of teenagers—motor vehicle crashes—with improvements in driver education and laws that place restrictions on newly licensed drivers, according to a report from the American Automobile Association.

For More Information

The progress report, "AAA's Licensed to Learn: A Safety Program for New Drivers," is available on the Web at aaa.com/news12/LTL/ lictolearn/GDL.htm.

Teenage drivers constitute 7 percent of the driving population, but account for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In an analysis based on injury and crash data from that agency, the AAA projects that strong graduated-driver-licensing programs that include passenger restrictions and curbs on nighttime driving for teenagers could lead to 1.5 million fewer crashes, 500,000 fewer injuries, and $9 billion in savings over 10 years.

Those conclusions from the nonprofit travel organization, based in Orlando, Fla., match the findings of an earlier study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year, that reported that the risk of fatal injury for both male and female drivers ages 16 or 17 increases with the number of passengers in the car.

—Andrew Trotter & Darcia Harris Bowman

Vol. 20, Issue 42, Page 17

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