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Health Experts Criticize Changes in STD Panel

By Rob Stein, The Washington Post, May 9, 2006

Federal agencies ordered changes to a government-sponsored conference on prevention of sexually transmitted diseases after a congressman raised questions about the absence of speakers supporting abstinence programs, officials said yesterday.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the main organizer of the conference, dropped one speaker from a panel on abstinence being held today, added two others and changed the name of the session, officials said.

The decision was praised by supporters of abstinence programs and the congressman who raised questions about the panel, but it was condemned by public health experts as political meddling because the new presentations had not been approved through a scientific peer-review process.

The controversy involves the 2006 National STD Prevention Conference in Jacksonville, Fla., which began yesterday.

An aide to Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), sent an e-mail April 26 to the Department of Health and Human Services raising questions about a panel titled "Are Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs a Threat to Public Health?"

"Just the title alone was enough to cause us concern," said Martin Green, Souder's spokesman. But the congressman also was alarmed because one of the speakers was focusing on a report produced by the office of Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) that was critical of abstinence programs, and because no one would be speaking in support of such programs.

"We wanted to see some balance on this panel," Green said.

In response, the CDC last week changed the name of the panel to "Public Health Strategies of Abstinence Programs for Youth," removed the panelist discussing the Waxman report and added two proponents of abstinence, Eric Walsh of Loma Linda University in California and Patricia Sulak of Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Texas, founder of an abstinence-promotion program called Worth the Wait.

"Upon further review of the composition of the panel, CDC did decide the symposium was not balanced and needed to be expanded to include a broader perspective on abstinence education," said CDC spokeswoman Terry Butler. Butler said there was not enough time to put the new presentations through the peer-review process.

"What was basically a propaganda panel has had its politicized nature removed and appears now to be a more accurate reflection of the scientific opinion," Green said.

About half of U.S. high school students have had sex, according to federal data.

But the decision, which was reported Friday by the online magazine Slate and the Philadelphia Inquirer, drew harsh criticism from the presenter who was removed, the panel organizer and other public health researchers.

Bruce Trigg of the New Mexico Department of Public Health, the original organizer, condemned the decision as political meddling in the scientific process. The original panel was vetted through a formal peer-review process by independent researchers.

"It is unprecedented that this type of interference takes place at a scientific meeting," Trigg said. He said the original panel was not designed to be a balanced critique but to present the public health concerns about abstinence programs.

"I have nothing to fear from a balanced program. They would have been welcome to submit abstracts for review and consideration. The claim is this is about a public health program when it's really about ideology and religion," Trigg said.

William Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, who was bumped from the panel, said he was "very disappointed."

"It was shocking to me," Smith said. "What does this say about the ability of politicians to influence what is going on in public health?"

Jonathan Zenilman, president of the American Sexually Transmitted Diseases Association, a co-sponsor of the conference, said he was "surprised and astounded."

"This is the first time I've seen the process of peer review subverted by pure politics," Smith said.

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