Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, Bold on AIDS Education, Dies at 96

By Nirvi Shah — February 26, 2013 2 min read
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More than two decades ago, then U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop became an outspoken advocate for teaching children in “the lowest grade possible” about a little-discussed disease called AIDS.

Dr. Koop, who also called for a smoke-free society by 2000 and accused the tobacco industry of marketing directly to children, died Monday. He was 96.

A retired pediatric surgeon tapped by President Ronald Reagan to be the nation’s doctor in 1981, Dr. Koop soon became frustrated by the Reagan administration’s slowness in reacting to the AIDS crisis, the rise of which coincided with his eight-year run as surgeon general.

A frank 36-page report he published in 1986 discussed the nature of AIDS, how the disease is spread, risk factors for contracting the disease, and ways in which people could protect themselves, including the use of condoms. It was eventually condensed and mailed to all 107 million American households at the time, the largest mailing in U.S. history.

In his remarks, his profile in the National Library of Medicine says, Dr. Koop emphasized that because education was the best AIDS-prevention strategy, and because AIDS was spread primarily through sex, sex education should begin in 3rd grade.

Dr. Koop disagreed with then-U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett’s position that children should be taught only to abstain from sex to prevent contracting the illness. Dr. Koop also advocated abstinence, but he wanted a more comprehensive approach to prevention education, especially for young people at greatest risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Eventually, however, Dr. Koop’s message for education on the subject had a direct effect on schools, though perhaps not to the extent he hoped: HIV and AIDS have become a staple of health and sex-education classes, although approaches to prevention are split between abstinence-only and safe-sex approaches.

At a U.S. House hearing in 1987, Dr. Koop warned that the United States was facing an “explosion” in the number of teenagers with AIDS. There, he advocated an abstinence-only approach, too, but Dr. Koop noted that such a message, and one of monogamy, would not have an effect on some groups of adolescents.

“I was talking to a group of teenagers recently about this problem of being monogamous and I said, ‘I mean long-term monogamous,’” he told the House committee. “And this girl said, ‘How long? A semester?’”

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that as of 2009, young people accounted for 39 percent of all new HIV infections in the United States, though people ages 15 to 29 made up just 21 percent of the population.

Dr. Koop, who was known for his distinctive beard and for donning the military-inspired official uniform of the surgeon general, died at home in Hanover, N.H., of undisclosed causes.

Photo: U.S. Surgeon Gen. C. Everett Koop testifies before the Joint Economic Committee’s education and health subcommittee during 1988 hearings on the future of health care in America. —J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.