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Updated 10:00 AM February 2, 2009




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Former surgeon general advocates education for youth health

A lack of education is the leading cause of the health crisis facing today's youth, said Dr. Joycelyn Elders, a former surgeon general under President Clinton.

Elders delivered a keynote address for the School of Public Health's Fifth Annual Practice Office Symposium Jan. 27 in Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre. The event also featured remarks by Richard Carmona, the 17th surgeon general who served four years under President George Bush.

"Education, education, education," Elders repeated over the course of the lecture, saying parents, politicians and young people all need to be better informed about such issues. "We live in a health-illiterate society."

She touched on many issues concerning youth health, ranging from teen pregnancies, sexually transmitted infection and sexually transmitted disease infection rates, to poor healthcare access for non-white races and lower socioeconomic groups.

Elders stressed the importance of educating elected officials, especially about how proper family planning is the best way to prevent abortions.

She also criticized the abstinence-only approach to sexual education. These programs make young people less likely to use condoms and more likely to have multiple partners, she said. "The best contraceptive in the world is a good education."

Elders has been a proponent of school-based preventative healthcare for young people. Putting the doctor right where children are gives the children greater access to healthcare and also requires less action to be taken by the parent, she said. "You can't do well in school if you're sick," Elders said.

That recommendation, however, was unpopular. "We didn't want someone else to tell (our children) about their health," Elders said. So when the proposed solution failed, "We didn't tell them anything, like ignorance is bliss. Well, ignorance is not bliss."

Technology, such as the new innovations of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, are possible new outlets for health education, Elders said. The country has yet to utilize this technology to lessen the plight of the sick. "We need to listen to young people, learn what they want," and not always tell them what they need, she said.

The biggest public health threat facing Americans is the health care model itself, Carmona said. Our health system, he said, must move to a model that embraces prevention, rather than waiting until people are already sick and dying, or suffering chronic illness, to treat their problems.

Carmona declined to comment on potential surgeon general nominee and U-M alumnus Sanjay Gupta, who's been a controversial choice for many public health professionals and others in the medical community. Some feel Gupta is a good choice, and will raise the awareness of public health through communication. Others feel he doesn't have enough public health experience and will not command respect.

"However," Carmona said, "there are core competencies that are necessary to perform the job well." The nominee must have a broad understanding of public health, and must have a professional history that will engender the respect of his or her peers. The professional history must include public health, Carmona said.

"The person has to be seen as a leader."

It remains to be seen how the Obama administration will treat the surgeon general position. The surgeon general notoriously is politicized, he said, and often pressured to water down or candy-coat findings.

In 2007 Carmona testified before a House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that the Bush administration routinely muzzled him, and prevented him from discussing sensitive topics such as stem cell research or abstinence-only sex education.

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