Sexually transmitted infections are soaring in Charlotte and the Parents Bill of Rights isn’t helping | Opinion

North Carolina is experiencing a concerning increase in sexually transmitted infections. Last year, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services sounded the alarm about a significant, statewide rise in syphilis cases among women and babies.

The Mecklenburg County Health Department even held a Syphilis Symposium in 2022 due to a rise in congenital syphilis and stillbirths: each case a preventable tragedy.

Unfortunately, the Parents’ Bill of Rights, passed by the N.C. legislature in 2023, could make things worse. This new law requires parents and caregivers to opt-in for their children to receive sex education in school, preventing all students from equal access to basic sexual health education and empowerment to make informed decisions about their sexual health.

A recent Queen City News article said that although over 50,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students are eligible to opt in, less than half have received parental approval to participate in sex education. Changing sex education from an opt-out to an opt-in program places another burden on busy parents: decide and remember to grant permission for children to participate. As a result, children are missing out on important sexual health information, including basic facts about sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Parents should be encouraged to opt-in to sex education programs because they are critical for their children and for the health of our communities. Without comprehensive sex education, misinformation may make children feel stigma, fear or shame about their bodies, desires, sexual orientations and identities by making an important topic taboo. Collectively, these issues increase the likelihood of STIs, already elevated in our state.

Meagan Zarwell
Meagan Zarwell
Jesse Elkins
Jesse Elkins

In 2021, Mecklenburg County reported 277 new HIV diagnoses and 30.7% were among people between the ages of 13-24.

Stigma and discrimination based on gender or sexual identity, race, HIV status and sexual and drug use behaviors help drive an increase in STIs. In addition, ads for preventive HIV medication (PrEP) focus on gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men. Transgender and cisgender women, particularly Black women, have been left behind in HIV prevention messaging.

Social stigma and discrimination prevent young people from talking about STIs, sex and PrEP with healthcare providers. Besides reducing stigma, more awareness is needed about how STIs and HIV are transmitted and what testing and prevention resources are available locally. A 2021 survey among 701 undergraduates in Mecklenburg County found that 61.2% of those surveyed were unaware of PrEP and 37% had low HIV knowledge scores.

Students need to know that there is no cure for HIV and that people living with HIV who receive treatment can achieve an undetectable viral load that prevents sexual transmission.

Some parents may worry that receiving sexual health education in schools will change their children’s family or religious beliefs, encourage them to engage in sexual behaviors, or change their identities. However, sex education programs focus on explaining healthy relationships, reproductive health, consent, STIs and basic anatomy. Discussing sexual health with children may be challenging or uncomfortable, particularly if parents have low knowledge about STIs. Additional support for parents is available through online resources, but sex education in schools is still a crucial tool to supplement what parents teach.

Comprehensive sex education in schools is not perfect. However, it is a starting point for parents to begin conversations with their kids about how to critically think about their inevitable relationship with sex and sexuality, including STIs. More parents need to opt their children into sex education courses.

Meanwhile our political and education leaders should do more to encourage and support parents in doing so. We all have a part to play in teaching children that STIs are preventable, but only if we collectively work together to overcome the stigma surrounding conversations about sex.

Meagan Zarwell is an Assistant Professor of Public Health Sciences at UNC Charlotte. Jesse Strunk Elkins is a doctoral student in Public Health Sciences at UNC Charlotte.