The fact that there were so many sex partners--and in fact as we tried to
monitor partners, this in fact spread way beyond simply this community--it made
it much more difficult because of the actual numbers. I think what it also lit
up for us was the fact that we perhaps were a bit unrealistic about the true
sexual risk many of the teens in Georgia were taking. We tended to think that
any sexual risk was in a much older age group. |
And so it was a dual process of educating us as well about the fact that we
have to initiate prevention activities and education activities at a much
younger age. For example, our [sexual] behavior survey, which is a survey that
CDC sponsors in our state, talks about four or more lifetime sexual partners.
We had youngsters in involved in this outbreak who described 65 sex partners,
which renders our survey almost comical because they weren't in any way
capturing the magnitude of the risk behavior that these kids were experiencing.
My understanding is that there was a lot of mis-diagnosis at first.
... Many of the private sector physicians totally missed the mark, and again I
think part of this has to do with the fact that it was syphilis, and that it
was syphilis in an affluent community, and it just never entered their mind.
Two young men with secondary syphilis were treated, one with Benadryl, which is
something you give for an allergic reaction, and the other for acne. ... I
think because of where we practice we often tend to wear blinders about, "in
our backyard this couldn't possibly be going on." So the fact that it was
syphilis escaped detection for some time simply because I think many of the
private sector physicians did not even think about that as a potential
diagnosis, particularly for these young, middle class affluent teens. ...
What is the disease of syphilis? How serious is this disease if left
Syphilis is a bacterial sexually transmitted disease that's been described in
the medical literature for hundreds and hundreds and years. And it is easily
treatable with penicillin but if gone untreated it can do tremendous damage to
the body including to the heart, brain. ... Syphilis causes severe brain
damage. And particularly in pregnancy it can affect the infant. Half of
infants infected with congenital syphilis die, and virtually all the rest have
some sort of sequelae of syphilis infection. And so it's tremendously
devastating to the infant when transmitted during pregnancy. ... Syphilis in
most of the United States and certainly in Georgia is largely confined to very
disenfranchised communities. It's largely confined to an African American
population. And so to find syphilis outside of what is now a relatively small
cohort of individuals still at risk for syphilis is what brought it, I think,
to our attention with such clarity.
My understanding is there was a group of kids at the hub of the syphilis
My understanding of the syphilis is that there was a core group of young girls.
Again, making this an unusual outbreak. Not that men are always responsible
for outbreaks. But again it was the behavior of the young girls and that they
were interacting with two different cohorts of young men, one white, one
African American. And I think what particularly alarmed me both as a public
health professional but also as someone who has worked in STD for many years,
was the alcohol use, but also the extremely high risk sexual activity: group
sex, sometimes multiple, two on one sex or other sexual activity. All of our
traditional education and intervention methods would just be rendered useless
in that kind of high risk setting. And my sense from discussions with the kids
and from what was reported back to me by the investigators was that in fact
there was a tremendous element of peer pressure going on here. That what was
driving this in part was a desire to be part of a group, to be accepted. ...
Was it your sense that in any way the girls were victims of the boys?
... It did not seem as if these teens were in any way victims ... . Much of the
activity that was being carried out here was not coercive, but rather taking
place because of the desire to be part of a group. It was pressure, I suppose,
but more pressure to be accepted, to be part of this group of friends. To be
part of something that was special. In fact, the girls who could perform even
more outrageous sexual activities developed more status within this group of
people. So were they victims in the traditional sense? Not at all. But were
they victims of peer pressure? Yes, in the sense that they wanted to be part of
this group so desperately that they continued to have high risk sexual
activities simply to be accepted by this group of friends. ...
You said that you tried to sit on the story, to squash the story. How did
you try to squash the story?
We didn't actually try to squash the story in the sense to keep it out of the
press. But rather we didn't go in a proactive way to the press which we might
do with a public health story where there was broad exposure and ongoing risk.
What we knew is the only individuals at risk for disease were those sex
partners of these teens, and that any kind of adverse publicity, and
particularly negative publicity, might in fact discourage partners from coming
forward or ... might make the teens frightened to talk to the public health
So we tried to minimize discussion of this in the community until it came
forward, and then I was the one who was designated as the one to interface with
the press and at that time what I emphasized to them was not the number of sex
partners or the unusual sexual activity that was going on, but rather the fact
that these were young teens, and all of them having access to alcohol and that
it was under the influence of alcohol that these sexual activities were going
on. And that we were totally amiss in not recognizing the fact that our kids
had access to alcohol, could get it under age, and that this was a major
substance abuse problem in many of our communities statewide. ...
One of the really important things that the public health department did in
Rockdale was try to mobilize the community in an on-going way, not to flame any
kind of adverse publicity but rather identify what some of the problems of
these teens were and try and identify community solutions. Several of the
members of the health department went out in the community, tried to work with
ministers to initiate youth ministries ... , tried to mobilize community
support for on-going activities to support teens. ... It was felt that there
was a lot of work that we could be doing with the schools in Rockdale, with
other community groups ... that could help prevent something like this from
happening in the future.
Almost a year after the outbreak occurred [there was] a town meeting to bring
parents in to talk about it. Local politicians, county commissioners from
Rockdale were actually there to introduce the meeting, and I was brought in to
talk about sexually transmitted diseases in general, what they reflect, and in
particular what happened here in that outbreak. And I remember vividly,
because I've never had such an audience for any talk I've ever given, any
public talk. This is an audience, an auditorium full of skeptical parents and
many of them were angry, feeling that somehow this was not their kids that this
had happened to, or somebody else is responsible for this.
And I remember when I put up the slide that showed that interaction, the sex
partners, and the partners of the partners, it looked like a ball of yarn.
There was actually a gasp from the audience and this total disbelief that this
could have happened in their community. And there ensued a discussion, and
with me there was a minister who was involved with the youth ministry, other
local public servants, the police, others, talking about how this could have
happened. And it was so extraordinary to me that these parents started looking
for externally who to blame. "This caused this--TV has caused that--external
groups have caused this--" But few of them, none of them that I can recall,
ever looked to themselves. And the minister turned to me and said, "They don't
see. It's them. It's the parents. They have done this. The kids don't talk to
And yet what was extraordinary to me, a year after this outbreak, that here
was a community in total denial about what happened ... and when confronted
with the data about what happened, pointing a finger everywhere but back in the
community, and certainly not back to them as having any responsibility for what
Why are you so sure that it was them that were at fault?
Why am I so sure? In discussions with the teenagers, the teens described
relationships with parents that were just disconnected. And in fact in
discussions later with the youth ministers, they talked about these teens
wanting desperately to have parental approval. Wanting their parents to just
say something that they were doing that was something that was good.
... To me what was so extraordinary about this whole experience as a public
health person who's worked in communities for years was that this syphilis
outbreak not only unmasked tremendously high risk sexual activity among teens,
but in addition it also unmasked tremendously dysfunctional families in
communities where we never thought to look for this kind of dysfunction.
Parents not talking to teenagers and that leading to a lot of acting out on the
part of the teens. ...
In a sense these kids were forming their own family. A surrogate
The teens had formed their own social network, their own group, and they got
approval from that group. And sadly the approval required them to perform in
more and more bizarre ways--at least what we would consider to be bizarre
ways--and carry out higher and higher risk activities.
Tell me about Teen Plus in Rockdale.
Independent of any of the other activities that have been going on in Rockdale,
the state had initiated a special adolescent health teen pregnancy prevention
program... called Teen Plus. The way the communities were identified for Teen
Plus sites were those with the highest number of adolescent pregnancies. It
turned out that Rockdale was not at the top of the list, but was in the second
tier slated to get funding for an adolescent pregnancy prevention program.
These programs would be flexible and could include clinical services, but also
could include youth development activities, mentoring, youth ministry
activities, boys and girls clubs, after school programs. A wide range of
activities could be supported by these funds, but they had to be connected to
or at least referral needed to be available to some family planning services.
I was ecstatic when I saw Rockdale on the list because this was a few years now
after that original outbreak had occurred. It didn't appear that there was a
lot of ongoing community involvement in adolescent health activities or youth
development or support for these teens. I thought this was a wonderful way for
us to follow up on that town meeting to give support to the youth ministries
and also to continue to provide at last some clinical services to teens who
were at high risk and already sexually active. We also know from our data,
here in the state and elsewhere, that teens don't come to a health department
clinic until they've been already sexually active for a year or longer. So we
had no concerns that we would be ... encouraging sexual activity but rather we
would be making services available to teens as they are right now through the
Rockdale Health Department. ...
I was actually quite astounded at the kind of community uprising against Teen
Plus that came, ... and that much of the anger of the conservative [reaction]
was coming from Commissioner Randy Poynter and others. Commissioner Poynter
had in fact headed up the town meeting and introduced me to the town meeting
just a year or so before when I had addressed the parents about the Rockdale
outbreak. And so I was flabbergasted that a year later he would take such a
negative view of this potential program to bring resources to his community
that had a clearly identified problem, that he had wanted to address just a few
months before. I think the difference in my mind was the fact that we were
coming up on a governor and lieutenant governor election, and that these teen
pregnancy prevention programs became fodder for that election. ... As part of
this election, these programs became so politicized, and in efforts to show how
strong a candidate's family values were. they began to demonize [not only] all
of these programs but many of the individuals involved in public health. ...
What did they say?
They were misrepresenting what programs did. ... They said that they were
abortion programs. That these were abortion clinics. That we were encouraging
kids to have sexual activity. That we were pulling kids out of schools to
encourage them to have sex and then give them abortion pills when they became
pregnant. And again what was so astounding to me is that this is going on in
the community where just a few years before we had a syphilis outbreak with
teens, on their own--without anybody's encouragement--carrying out activities
that were just to me unimaginable. And yet the denial that was going on in
that community by ... political leaders who just a year earlier had pledged to
support public health and intervening was very disturbing to me. ...
It was almosas if there was a collective amnesia about what happened. The
parents that were involved with these kids were nowhere to be found. I think
that much of the community memory of this was lost, and all the only voices
that were heard were these shrill dissonant voices that didn't reflect the
reality of either our programs or the reality of what was going on among teens
in that community. And there was just a real fear that if you spoke out that
you would be labeled in an adverse way that would affect your impact or ability
to work in the community. ... And so to me the ultimate sadness is here's a
community that desperately needed it, here are teens who desperately needed
these programs of support and mentoring and the shoring up of that bond between
parent and family and teen, and it was turned into such a political issue these
funds of support was turned away. ...
But don't the opponents of Teen Plus have a point? You've just gone through
a syphilis epidemic. You know that teens are doing unbelievably promiscuous
things. Having so many partners. And all they're saying is don't teach them
sex. Don't give them condoms. Teach them abstinence. What's wrong with
There's nothing wrong with teaching abstinence. ... In fact this very program
for teens was an abstinence based program. We're reinforcing importance of
abstinence, the most effective way not only to prevent pregnancy but to reduce
the risk for other diseases. But most importantly, those two factors that are
the most important influences on a child's life are parents and teachers, and
so, in saying that, the most effective programs to reduce adolescent pregnancy
prevention aren't giving condoms or "just say no" but in fact are programs that
give a kid a sense of the future.
The word is "youth development" programs. In fact what they do is give kids a
sense of self-esteem, reinforce the fact that there is something beyond the
immediate. There is something to wait for. There is something to look forward
to. And so many teens that we see who do become pregnant become pregnant not
because they didn't know about condoms or know how to use them or didn't have
access to birth control pills, but rather having a baby in their mind was the
most significant accomplishment they would ever have in their life. And to me
that's a problem much bigger than public health. And that's why our programs
to reduce teen pregnancy had to, by definition, involve parents, involve
families, involve the school, involve churches, because it isn't just a
question of handing out condoms or just saying no. It's working with kids to
give them a sense of who they are ... and to build that sense of self and that
sense of self-esteem that can allow them to go on to be productive healthy
What lesson or lessons do you take out of this whole strange syphilis story
I guess a couple of things. One is just because something like this happens in
a community, and you try very hard to educate a community about the
implications of such an event that won't necessarily lead to a change in
behavior. A single event will not educate a community. ... For me as well,
someone who's been in public health and has worked with adolescents for many
years, I think the other thing it taught me is just how deep-seated a lot of
the feelings are in a community about sexuality, and particularly adolescent
sexuality, and that this just opened up this incredible emotion in this
community, the feelings of morality ... that incredible tension that's felt
when public health has to dance between what is appropriate public policy
versus private morality, and how do you bridge that. There aren't clear cut
answers to that. ...
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