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Why are we more alarmed at the swine flu epidemic than HIV? [with update]

Update: Advocates for Youth is running a "Sound the Alarm" campaign asking congress to take action on funding for AIDS housing, federally funded syringe exchange programs and increasing global AIDS funding. Check out their call to action.

Marie Cocco at the Washington Post Writers' Group raises an interesting question about our attitudes towards dangerous diseases.

In the past few months, we've experienced near hysteria over swine flu and almost constant media attention to scares about tainted food. These are genuine health hazards – but they aren't necessarily deadly, nor do they affect nearly as many people in the United States and around the world as does AIDS.

The difference, of course, is that you get HIV from having sex or using drugs intravenously, not from unwittingly eating a bad burger or sitting next to a flu carrier.

Condom use is in decline among American teenagers, and rates of STDs are on the rise, most alarmingly HIV. This is largely the fault of Abstinence-Only curriculums, which teach the lie that that condoms are not effective at preventing STDs. But it's not only their fault.

The same researchers who documented the drop in condom use link the decline in part to waning public concern about transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The clear increase in the proportion of teenagers using condoms came during years when public health and media messages about the dangers of HIV were at a height.

Abstinence-Only sex ed got its early momentum as a reaction to the explicit sex education that was taught in the 80s in the wake of the AIDS epidemic. As the Abstinence-Only programs grew thanks to goverment support – and as a result of their bad science and religious moralizing – the sexual health of young people has taken a turn for the worse.

It's not enough for the Obama administration to make it harder for Abstinence-Only outfits to get funding. It's time for sex education programs to return to the hard-core public health messages we heard back when we all took HIV and sexual health seriously.