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The Nation

Waxman Urges End to 'Misleading' Health Website

U.S.-funded resource for parents of teens has inaccurate data on sex issues, lawmaker says.

July 14, 2005|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A government website created to help parents counsel their teenagers about risky health behaviors provides "inaccurate and misleading" information about condoms, sexual orientation and other issues, a Democratic congressman charged Wednesday.

The site, www.4parents.gov, promotes sexual abstinence until young people enter into a "mutually faithful marriage to an uninfected partner" as the "healthiest choice."

But it could become another source of contention in a health ethics debate that includes such issues as stem cell research and end-of-life care, pitting social conservatives and some doctors against liberals and many in the medical establishment.

The website should be removed from the Internet, with a team of experts assigned to evaluate the accuracy of its contents, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) urged Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt in a letter sent Wednesday.

"The content appears to have been guided by ideology, not a commitment to providing parents and teens reliable information about sex," Waxman wrote. "A federally funded website 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."

Much of the work on the website was done by the National Physicians Center for Family Resources, an educational and advocacy group that promotes sexual abstinence for teens.

"The website was intended to emphasize the healthiest lifestyle choice, and [President Bush] says that he believes abstinence is the healthiest choice for adolescents," said Dianna Lightfoot, the nonprofit organization's president. The group has offices in Birmingham, Ala., and Malibu.

"There is a wealth of information on contraception," Lightfoot said, adding that abstinence should receive equal prominence so that parents could use that information "to set a higher standard" for their children's behavior.

The Department of Health and Human Services contracted to pay the center $25,000 for its work, she added.

Department spokesman Daniel Morales said officials had not had time to review Waxman's letter and could not comment on the lawmaker's objections.

The website has been well received by parents since it was launched this year, said Dr. Alma Golden, the department's deputy assistant secretary for population affairs, who is also a pediatrician. Her office was responsible for overseeing the project.

But Golden said the department also had heard concerns about some of the information. "We have people who said they thought condoms were more efficacious" than what was reported on the site, she said.

The department is committed to presenting accurate information for parents and will correct any mistakes, she added.

"If there is something awkward, uncomfortable or not usable, we want to be able to modify it," Golden said. "The bottom line is we obviously want accurate data."

Waxman asked four academic experts to independently review the website.

In letters to Waxman, three of them noted some positive aspects but all four found problems with accuracy, balance and completeness.

Dr. King Holmes, a University of Washington professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases, said in a letter to Waxman that a chart on sexually transmitted diseases understated the effectiveness of condoms. For example, the chart on the site states that condom use "is associated with some decreased risk" of being infected with chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and herpes.

Holmes said the chart should instead read "significantly decreased risk." He also said the chart understated the effectiveness of AIDS drugs in prolonging life.

Dr. Richard Pleak, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, wrote Waxman that a section of the site dealing with gay teenagers omitted crucial information.

He offered as an example a statement on the website that "some teens who question their gender or relationships are at increased risk for depression, suicide or other problems."

Pleak said the site should note that such problems are "most often due to rejection, ostracism, harassment, and even violence by biased peers and adults." He also suggested that the website include references to national organizations that provide support for parents of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender teens.

"It is clear that the website authors were not offering information consistent with current scientific evidence and clinical expertise, and thus the effectiveness of such information is severely diminished," Pleak wrote.

Dr. John Santelli, chairman of the department of population and family health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, criticized the website for relying on anecdotal information from media accounts to suggest that teens increasingly engage in oral sex.

"There is little evidence that oral sex has increased over time," Santelli wrote. "The [website's] statement that 'oral sex is as dangerous in terms of disease as is intercourse' is incorrect. Most [sexually transmitted infections] are less commonly transmitted orally and/or are less likely to result in disease."

Lightfoot, the department's consultant on the site, said she believed that any inaccurate information would be corrected, but she added that she was disappointed with Waxman's criticism.

"I would say to Mr. Waxman, 'For every expert you can line up, I can line up 10 psychologists and 40 gynecologists,' " Lightfoot said.

"Instead of continuing to disagree and complain ... I would encourage him to say that there are more constructive and positive things that could be added to this message."

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