New Surgeon General – Will She Sound the Alarm that AIDS is Here?

Congratulations to our new Surgeon General! Dr. Regina Benjamin is a native Mobilian and works out of Bayou La Batre.  Let’s hope she brings some attention and solutions for HIV/AIDS in the United States (and especially in the south!). 

From StarTribune.com

I’m sure somewhere between Monday’s news that the stock market went up (or was that down?) and that there is still some question over who will gain custody of Michael Jackson’s children, a story broke about our newly nominated Surgeon General.  President Obama selected Dr. Regina Benjamin to head that office. That’s nice, but some of you may wonder, “Exactly what does the Surgeon General do?”  We know that they warn us against smoking.  After all it’s on every package of cigarettes.  But what else do they do? 


A visit to the official website for the Surgeon General was quite revealing. I quote, “The Surgeon General serves as America’s chief health educator by providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury.”  Chief health educator is a tall order. It means that if Dr. Benjamin hopes to be effective as a health educator, and, if confirmed, she will have to talk to us all in terms we plainly understand.  She will have to provide us with practical suggestions about how to improve our health.  For example, Dr. Benjamin will really and truly have to teach us that food portion size is directly related to obesity.  That wearing seat belts and helmets do save lives.  Those are easy messages to deliver.  But when it comes to unintended pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS, the message becomes more difficult.   


Look what happened when former Surgeon Generals tried to educate us.  Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders had to leave the post when she had the temerity to suggest that masturbation might be a form of “safer sex”.  Guess what?  It is.  Years before her time, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop was prevented from speaking frankly about the risk of HIV being related to, (once again) gasp, sex.  Despite being able to send out the first and last public health mailing to every American household, he was not allowed to use terms like “semen” or “vaginal fluids”, but instead had to use the undefined term of “bodily fluids” when referring to the risk of HIV transmission.  Now as a result, today most Americans fear catching AIDS from these “bodily fluids” like sweat, tears and saliva – all of which pose absolutely no risk.  And those living with HIV face that stigma when they reveal their status and suddenly their dinner mate gets nervous because they ate salsa out of the same bowl. 


Let’s hope that this Surgeon General’s administration sounds the alarm, loud and clear, about HIV.  A major factor in why we are not winning the battle against AIDS is because we have been forced to only politely talk about risk. We like fear tactics, so we are encouraged to scare people and warn them that “AIDS kills” — not a long lasting message, but then find ourselves prevented from publicly talking about a healthy sexual life.  Why?  As a society we continue to use sex to sell everything from toothpaste to travel to beer – but never to sell safer sex.  We know that while abstinence is an important message for young people, the failure rate for abstinence during the course of someone’s lifetime is nearly universal.  So what happens then? The time to learn about safer sex is not 5 minutes before someone’s first sexual encounter. 

So while I’m glad that President Obama has nominated a new Surgeon General, I can only hope that she will bring the fighting spirit that Dr. Koop had in  pushing the administration to sound the alarm about HIV and the courage of Dr. Elders to speak the truth.  HIV is not going to go away.  There is no vaccine and there is no cure.  And fear tactics don’t work. Let’s use the office of the Surgeon General as it is intended to be used – as a means to improve Americans’ health and reduce the risk of illness. 


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