HHS Web Site on Sexual Abstinence Includes Inaccurate Information, Review Finds
An HHS Web site designed to help parents discuss sexual abstinence with their teenage children contains inaccurate and misleading information about condoms, sexual orientation, dangers associated with oral sex and single-parent households and potentially could lead to riskier behavior among young people or alienation among families, according to medical experts who reviewed the material at the request of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the Washington Post reports (Connolly, Washington Post, 7/14). The Web site -- 4parents.gov -- was developed by HHS' Office of Population Affairs and Administration for Children and Families and includes information on various health topics, statistics, conversation starters and interactive tools and also instructs parents to tell their teenage children to abstain from sex.
Earlier this year, 145 advocacy groups -- including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States -- sent a letter to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt criticizing the Web site for including inaccurate information (California Healthline, 4/1). HHS in May revised some parts of the site, but some advocacy groups said the changes did not address all of the groups' criticisms.
At Waxman's request, three physicians and a child psychologist independently reviewed the Web site (Washington Post, 7/14). Three of the reviewers noted positive aspects of the site, and all four reported problems with the site's accuracy, balance and comprehensiveness, the Los Angeles Times reports.
King Holmes, a University of Washington medical professor specializing in infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS, said a sexually transmitted disease chart included on the site understates condom effectiveness. The chart says condom use "is associated with some decreased risk" of contracting chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and herpes, but Holmes said it should read that condom use is associated with "significantly decreased risk" of transmitting the STDs. He also said the site understates the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs in prolonging the lives of HIV-positive individuals.
John Santelli, chair of the Department of Population and Family Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, criticized the Web site for relying on media reports to assert that teens increasingly engage in oral sex, saying there is little evidence that the rates have increased over time. The Web site also says "oral sex is as dangerous in terms of disease as is intercourse," which Santelli said is incorrect (Alonso-Zaldivar, Los Angeles Times, 7/14).
The other reviewers -- Richard Pleak, a child psychologist and associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and author of "The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting" -- noted inaccuracies in how the site addresses homosexuality and omissions of information about other topics parents of teens might need, such as how to address concerns about alcohol or tobacco use.
Waxman on Wednesday sent a letter to Leavitt outlining the reviewers' findings and urging him to remove the Web site from the Internet and "start from scratch" (Sternberg, USA Today, 7/14). He wrote, "The content appears to have been guided by ideology, not a commitment to providing parents and teens reliable information about sex," adding, "A federally funded Web site should present the facts as they are, not as you might wish them to be. It is wrong -- and ultimately self-defeating -- to sacrifice scientific accuracy in an effort to frighten teens and their parents" (Los Angeles Times, 7/14).
Waxman in the letter also said the Web site was not created by CDC experts or "any other science-based agency of the federal government" but was produced by the National Physicians Center for Family Resources, which he called an "obscure" group that has "erroneously linked abortion to breast cancer" and criticized NIH for saying condoms are highly effective at preventing STDs (CQ HealthBeat, 7/13). Waxman said Leavitt should overhaul the Web site and "use the best information available from health experts and give advice that's proven to work" (USA Today, 7/14).
HHS spokesperson Daniel Morales said the agency had received but not yet reviewed Waxman's letter and could not comment on it. "The purpose of the Web site is to equip parents with the resources they need to talk to their youth about sex and relationships, encourage their teens to remain abstinent from unhealthy risk behaviors and to take an active role in the sexual health of their teens," Morales said.
NPCFR Chair John Whiffen said he is open to suggestions for changes and plans to add information on alcohol and tobacco use. However, he defended the site's promotion of sexual abstinence and the failure rates of some contraceptives (Washington Post, 7/14).
Alma Golden -- HHS deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, the department that oversaw the project -- said her office previously has heard similar concerns about information on the Web site and plans to correct any mistakes on the site in order to provide accurate information for parents (Los Angeles Times, 7/14).