State to skip federal funds over sex questions

For at least a decade, Georgia has steadfastly refused to include questions about sexual behavior in a CDC-sponsored survey of high school students.

Now that decision apparently will cost the state a shot at federal money for HIV/STD prevention.

In an April 4 letter from a Department of Education official to the CDC, the state said it would not apply for a round of federal funding for HIV/STD education because “it will not be able to comply with the new requirements.’’

Those new rules from the CDC require a state to include sex questions in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey in order to qualify for the extra funds.

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

For years, Georgia students have answered 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.

But not on sex. “There were some sensitive questions that many districts have not felt comfortable answering in the past, and we wanted reliable results,’’ Department of Education spokesman Matt Cardoza said in an email to GHN.

The agency has been receiving roughly $200,000 a year in federal funds to fight HIV. That money will go away under the new requirements. The state also receives money for monitoring the disease, albeit a lesser amount, and that funding does not require the sex questions to be asked.

HIV takes a heavy toll in Georgia. The state is ranked sixth-highest in the nation for its cumulative reported number of AIDS cases through December 2009.

Jeff Graham of advocacy group Georgia Equality says that in 2011, there were 156 new diagnoses of HIV among Georgia teenagers, following 161 the prior year.

Also in 2011, almost 1,200 young people between ages 20 and 29 in Georgia received HIV diagnoses, he added.

“The CDC has revamped its HIV prevention strategies and is focused on high-epidemic states, such as Georgia,’’ Graham said Monday. “It’s discouraging that the state doesn’t want to apply for this funding.’’

By the time young people graduate from high school, almost two-thirds have had sex, the CDC says. Nearly 40 percent of sexually active students did not use a condom the last time they had sex.

Such risky sexual behavior can have serious health consequences: About 18 percent of all new HIV diagnoses are among people ages 13 to 24. Teenagers and young adults have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) of any age group.

In addition, Georgia ranks 13th-highest in births by girls 15 to 19, and is second-highest in repeat teen pregnancies.

Georgia’s teen birth rate is 17 percent higher than the national average, costing Georgia taxpayers $465 million a year, according to a letter that advocacy groups sent to Gov. Nathan Deal last year. The letter urged him to rescind the state’s decision not to let sexual behavior questions be asked. (Here’s a GHN article about the letter to Deal)

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 can be asked within its jurisdiction. Besides Georgia, other states prohibiting the sex questions last year included Louisiana, Utah and Virginia. A few states allowed some, but not all, of the sex questions to be asked.

The CDC said the survey data are needed to measure outcomes that contribute to the reduction of HIV infection and other STDs among adolescents.

The 2013 national YRBS is in the field right now, a CDC spokeswoman said. Data collection will be complete at the end of this school year, the official said.