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N.M. Doctor Says Feds Tampered With Sex Ed Panel

By Jackie Jadrnak
Journal Staff Writer
    Albuquerque public health physician Bruce Trigg recently landed in the middle of a national fracas over science, politics and sex.
    The subject was abstinence education and sexually transmitted diseases.
    The controversy erupted when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reconfigured a panel Trigg organized for a national medical conference in Florida this week.
    The panel, which originally included only critics of abstinence education programs, ended up with two critics and two supporters.
    The change, prompted by a congressman's complaint, renewed charges from scientists that the Bush administration is mixing politics with science.
    "There was quite a stir," Trigg said in a telephone interview from the conference. "This is a level of interference in the public health community that I don't think we've seen before."
    Asked if politics was interfering with science, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said, "I can understand how someone may raise the issue, but the bottom line is, we felt it was important to do the right thing. Steps were taken to make sure there was balance on the panel."
    Trigg's original panel is the one that was politicized, according to Martin Green, press secretary for Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., whose staff raised the questions that led to the change.
    "How we can be accused of injecting politics into this is pretty extraordinary," he said. "We would argue strongly what we've done is remove politics from this panel."
    The controversy made headlines across the country after it appeared in the Washington Post and Philadelphia Inquirer.
    Here's what happened:
    Trigg, who specializes in prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases at the Department of Health's Stanford Clinic in Albuquerque, presented a proposal for a symposium at the 2006 National STD Prevention Conference in Jacksonville, Fla. It was sponsored by the CDC, but an outside group of scientific experts reviewed the proposals and decided which papers and panels would be presented, Trigg said. His proposal was approved, titled "Are Abstinence-Only Until Marriage Programs a Threat to Public Health?"
    That caught the eye of a staffer for Souder, who chairs a subcommittee charged with oversight of public health programs, according to Green. The conference program said that people attending the panel would learn how abstinence-only programs undermine public health, he added.
    Critics of abstinence education programs contend they don't give sufficient or accurate information about how condoms and other methods can reduce the risk of pregnancy and STDs.
    A Souder staff member e-mailed the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, asking if it knew of the session and "its obvious anti-abstinence objective," Green said.
    HHS contacted the CDC, where a number of people looked at the panel and decided it needed other points of view, Skinner said.
    "Last week, I got a call from the CDC saying there was a problem," Trigg said. "They said we can't have a one-sided criticism of a government program."
    Trigg said he was replaced as moderator, one panel member voluntarily pulled out and two others were appointed by the CDC. "At the national level, funding (for abstinence-only programs) is replacing public health money for contraception, family planning and STD control," he said. "They are promoting a politically and religiously based conservative set of values."
    John Santelli, professor and chair of the Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University, was the panel member who remained from Trigg's original proposal.
    He said he sympathizes with the contention the panel was not balanced. "The kind of people to come to this meeting are the ones who would have serious scientific concerns with abstinence programs," he said. "Those are simply the abstracts that were submitted."
    But he called the congressional and administrative interference "blatantly offensive to the scientific process." Saying he used to work for the CDC, Santelli said the level of political interference with science is increasing. "I think it's deplorable," he said.
    Both he and Trigg, who remained on the panel as a presenter, said it went well, with the meeting room packed on Tuesday. "Bruce got a standing ovation," Santelli added.