Albion Monitor /News

Elders: Start AIDS Education in Kindergarten

by John De Salvio

Dr. Elders blamed the "very religious, non-Christian right" for her firing, but is not angry

Calling education the key to AIDS prevention, former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders told the annual Sonoma County AIDS Foundation fund-raiser on October 13 that health education must be taught from kindergarten through 12th grade in all schools.

"Education, education, education," Elders stressed in her speech. "The only way we are going to get around this disease is with education. We have no vaccine, we have no magic drug. All we've got is education."

Elders, who was forced to resign from her position as Surgeon General for the Clinton administration after serving 15 months because of her outspoken positions on sex education, was keynote speaker at the $50-a-plate dinner. The 62-year-old Arkansas doctor told the 350 guests that she blamed the "very religious, non-Christian right" for her firing, but does not get angry about it. "We are all out there trying to sell our agenda, and I don't blame them for trying to sell theirs."

A society where children get 15,000 hours of TV and only 43.4 hours of health education

In her address, Elders called for teaching responsibility about sexual activity to children, teaching comprehensive health education to all grades, needle exchange programs, and universal health care for all citizens. She also embraced her title, "Condom Queen."

"I did say that, and I mean it, and I say it again," she told the cheering audience. She referred to her time as director of the Arkansas Department of Health, when she advocated making latex condoms available to sexually active teenagers. Elders accepted a cardboard crown decorated with condom packets presented to her by Carole Ellis, principal at Cook Middle School, who introduced her at the function.

Elders criticized the inadequate AIDS education in schools, noting that before syphilis and gonorrhea could be cured with penicillin, sex education was taught.

"Well, we found a magic bullet -- penicillin -- that would wipe out these diseases, and we forgot all about education," she said. "In fact we began to take it out of school at about that time. But now we've got a disease that we don't have a vaccine, we don't have a cure. We know that it's uniformly fatal, and we know that it's still spreading. And we have a society that says 'If we tell them about it, they'll do it.' Well, one of the things that we've got to understand is that they're already doing it." She admonished "a society that tells us it's all right for our children to have 15,000 hours of TV from kindergarten through 12th grade, and have 11,000 hours of reading, writing and arithmetic; and only 43.4 hours of health education."

Drawing from the headlines, she told the audience, "If we spend as much time educating this nation about HIV disease as we have spent the past year talking about O.J. Simpson, what a difference we'd have in education." She advocated teaching the ABCD of AIDS prevention: Abstinence, Being faithful to one partner, use of a latex Condom, and Doing other things instead of high-risk behavior.

In calling for national needle exchange programs, she said, "We've known for three or four years that if we gave clean needles we could reduce the spread of AIDS. They put all the studies together and brought them to me when I was the Surgeon General. Then they had it redone, and you just heard the report. It didn't change. It said that if you supplied clean needles to the drug users that we could reduce the spread of AIDS. And it did not increase the use of drugs."

If we're going to have a diseased, ignorant society, we don't need a Department of Defense

Dr. Elders took Congress to task for its skewed priorities. "On the federal government level we spend $33 million an hour for our national defense. We spend $23 million an hour on the interest on our national debt. We spent $8.6 million an hour bailing out the savings and loans. We spend only $1.3 million on health and education of children. So I think we need to think about that, and think about how we choose to spend our money. If we're going to cut out health and cut out education, and if we're going to have a diseased, ignorant society, we don't need a Department of Defense. We're self-destructing from the inside. We won't have to worry about anybody coming after us from the outside."

Elders told the audience it was not enough to be concerned; that people have to be committed to fighting the AIDS epidemic. "There's a great big difference being concerned about something and being committed," she said. "When you're concerned it's negotiable. When you're committed it's not negotiable. I tell people all the time when I'm out there fighting, about children and about the things I feel we need to do about children. My children are not negotiable. "We've all got to be involved if we're going to lick this disease, she continued. "It has tested every fiber in our society. I feel we've got to use every opportunity we get to make a difference. Every time you see one of your senators and legislators wherever they are, you go grab them and you twist their arm and you talk about the things they need to be about, whether it's at coffee, at church, or in the street."

She told about the advice she received early in her crusade from her bishop in Arkansas: "He said, 'Dr. Elders, always remember that in the job you're doing, it's like dancing with a bear. When you're dancing with a bear you can't get tired and sit down. You have to wait until the bear gets tired and then you sit down.' So I'm always out there trying to get a new partner to help me dance with that bear so I can sit down.

"I think that that's what we have to do with this disease," she continued. "We've got to keep looking for new partners and new ways to help us dance with that bear so we can begin to deal with the problems that our people are presenting before us.

"We can't get so busy downstream pulling out the bodies until we forget to go upstream and fix the bridge. I think it's time we fixed the bridge. And the way to fix the bridge is to make sure that we have universal access to health care for all of our citizens," said Dr. Elders.

Albion Monitor October 30, 1995 (

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