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The Washington Blade
HHS charged with watering down condom info: New approach to fact sheet puts people with HIV at risk, lawmaker charges
Jennifer J. Smith
December 27, 2002
Washington Blade - December 27, 2002

Thirteen members of Congress, including its only open lesbian, blasted the U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services for recent changes to its Web site and a fact sheet about condoms, claiming the moves were to "distort and suppress scientific information for ideological purposes." The letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson - written by Rep. Henry D. Waxman (D-Calif.) and signed by 12 other Democrats, including lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) - charges that a government fact sheet that promoted condom use as "highly effective" in preventing HIV and other STDs has been watered down.

The lawmakers also took issue with revisions to a fact sheet produced by the National Cancer Institute, which now omits a previously mentioned study denying any link between abortions and breast cancer.

"We are extremely concerned about these alterations and deletions of important scientific information," the letter addressed to Thompson reads. "They appear to be part of an Orwellian trend at HHS." The allegations are at least the second time this year that Waxman has publicly criticized Thompson's department. In October, Waxman and some Democratic colleagues charged that experts serving on advisory committees were being replaced because their views do not match those of the administration and that HHS is singling out AIDS groups with probing audits.

The criticism surfaced amid continuing allegations that HHS, and its Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, has taken a more conservative approach to its work under President Bush.

The White House favors an abstinence-only message for the administration's sex education efforts. Since the appointment of Dr. Julie Gerberding in July to lead the CDC, some gays and AIDS activists have complained that the federal health agency is clamping down on safe-sex programs that don't stress abstinence outside of marriage, an option gays can't seek.

On the CDC's Web site, the condom fact sheet had said that refraining from sex was the best way to prevent transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases, according to the Associated Press. The old version went on to say: "But for those who have sexual intercourse, latex condoms are highly effective when used consistently and correctly." The recently posted version focuses on HIV along with other sexually transmitted diseases. In its introduction, the fact sheet now states that condoms "can reduce the risk of STD transmission. However, no protective method is 100 percent effective, and condom use cannot guarantee absolute protection against any STD." The fact sheet goes on to analyze the effectiveness of condoms versus a variety of sexually transmitted diseases.

HHS did not respond to a request for comment by press time. But officials with the CDC said the changes were not politically motivated. CDC defends new info "The charge that we were given was to create a fact sheet that was objective and based on the best possible scientific evidence," said Dr. David Fleming, deputy director of science at CDC. "And that's what the fact sheet is." Waxman said in a recent interview that information "based on sound science" is being removed from federal health Web sites "when it conflicts with the Bush administration's political agenda." "This administration is letting ideology drive policy, and this will have a serious negative impact on public health. By downplaying the importance of condoms in preventing HIV, the administration is putting the gay community and many others at risk," Waxman said.

Fleming said the changes provide broader information to the public and put forth "a fair amount of new information on condoms." Gay activists said the changes were part of an ongoing struggle with the Bush administration.

"This is just one more piece of a very unpleasant puzzle," said David Smith, spokesperson for Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based gay advocacy group. "The actions of HHS are very alarming to us. There is an increasing body of evidence that this administration's response to AIDS is woefully inadequate and is in fact in some ways dangerous." HHS spokesperson Bill Pierce said in October it is Thompson's prerogative to appoint advisory committees. By contrast, he said, Waxman and other critics "would like all of us to follow their agenda, their liberal agenda, on these issues."

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