Sex questions still not part of youth survey

Once again, Georgia is not including questions about sexual behavior in a CDC-sponsored survey of high school students.

A health coalition recently sent a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal, asking him to rescind a decision to omit the sex questions in next year’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).

Those questions include: Have you ever had sexual intercourse? The last time you had intercourse, did you or your partner use a condom?

Georgia has not used the sex questions for at least a decade.

Students will get to answer survey questions on other types of behavioral issues, such as carrying a weapon, wearing a seat belt, being bullied, using tobacco, having symptoms of depression, drinking alcohol, and using illegal drugs.

“We think it’s time to ask’’ about sexual activity, said Vikki Millender-Morrow, president and CEO of the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, which signed the letter. “If we’re asking about substance abuse, why can’t we ask about this?”

Georgia ranks 13th-highest in births by girls 15 to 19, and is second-highest in repeat teenage pregnancies, said the letter, also signed by Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia Equality, The Jane Fonda Center at Emory University, Georgia Women for a Change, Georgia HIV Advocacy Network and individuals.

Georgia’s teen birth rate is 17 percent higher than the national average, costing Georgia taxpayers $465 million a year, the letter to the governor said.

The YRBS is sent at random to high schools. The process is anonymous, with no recording of students’ identities. A state Department of Education spokesman said Tuesday that local school systems decide whether to allow students to take the survey.

Though the effort is federally sponsored, each state decides which questions are asked within its jurisdiction. Besides Georgia, other states omitting sex questions last year included Louisiana, Maryland, Utah and Virginia. A few states asked some sex questions but not others.

The state Department of Public Health said Tuesday that in its review of the survey months ago, it recommended adding questions on child obesity. Reducing that rate is a top priority of state leaders. “We really wanted to focus on obesity,’’ said Ryan Deal, a Public Health spokesman.

The sexual questions were not identified as a new priority, Deal added. He said it was too late to revise the 2013 survey now, but that Public Health “would absolutely evaluate the use of those questions’’ for the next survey.

That sexual data could help establish baseline numbers that can be used to measure the state’s progress on reducing teen pregnancy, said Dr. Patrick O’Neal, director of health protection for the agency.

Millender-Morrow told GHN on Tuesday that without the data from sexual health questions, it’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of sex education and teen pregnancy programs and initiatives. Georgia is not considered for related grants and other resources, she added, “because we don’t have the data.’’

The questions are not “intrusive’’ and don’t encourage sexual activity, Millender-Morrow said.

Teen pregnancy is the No. 1 reason young girls drop out of school, the health coalition says, adding that Georgia has one of the highest STD rates in the country.

“These numbers are too big and too threatening to ignore and require our continued, critical need for programs, policies, and practices that support healthy behavior among teens,’’ the letter said. “To do effective prevention, we must meet Georgia’s young people where they are, and to do that we have to have solid information.’’