STDs

Actors Ruffy Landayan, Sandra Smith and Nina Weiss portray three high school seniors dealing with issues involving sex and STDs in a Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre production. STD rates in Kern County are among the highest statewide. 

Charmaine Cleveland / The Californian

A year ago, Kern County Public Health officials recognized an ongoing problem: Sexually transmitted diseases throughout Kern County were among the worst statewide, and those rates were surging among high school students and mothers infecting their babies.

They deemed the issue a public health crisis, warning county leaders of the alarming rates while reaching out to community partners, including school boards and church leaders. They showed them maps showing how many teenagers were infected by their high school boundaries. It was a shock and awe approach.

“We are sounding the alarm now for STDs. What we have done to this point is not enough,” Kern County Public Health Director Matthew Constantine told supervisors last December. “We must do better.”

One year later, the department has assembled a robust multi-year campaign called “Know Your Risk” that officials say has been elevated from a government public awareness push to a full-fledged community movement.

Public Health has secured state funding for awareness efforts and forged a partnership with Kern Broadcasters Association for reduced rates to air public service announcements as part of a robust advertising campaign. The department allocated $100,000 to air no fewer than 11 television spots on all three local stations over 12 months. Billboards checker Bakersfield urging parents to talk with kids about safe sex practices. It’s a frequent occurrence to see people – many whom work in the health profession – to sport “Know Your Risk” T-shirts on their off-days around town.

Public Health has even attracted local celebrities – like Fifth District County Supervisor Leticia Perez – to star in a series of television spots bringing awareness of congenital syphilis – a sometimes fatal form of the STD that can be passed on from mother to infant in the womb. Public Health recorded 26 cases in 2016. Its infection rate, fourth worst statewide, is 344 percent higher than the state average.

“Get tested for syphilis,” Perez says in the spot before rubbing her pregnant belly. “Protect your baby.”

Although STD rates overall increased in 2016, the campaign has been gaining traction.

Since its launch, Public Health has gotten the Bakersfield City School District to begin offering STD testing at its district wellness centers.

Kaiser Permanente began offering free productions of “What Goes Around” to the Kern High School District. That play teaches kids about the risks of STDs in what health practitioners describe as a hip and casual way.

Lerdo Jail put up “Know Your Risk” posters after health officials met with management there about Kern’s staggering STD rates.

“What we’ve experienced since we’ve launched this campaign is truly phenomenal,” Kern County Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Corson said.

Now, as the campaign enters year two, Public Health is refocusing its campaign from an information pitch to an action-oriented approach.

“We’re going to parents and saying, ‘parents, this needs to start at home,’” Corson said.

The department has created an online tool kit filled with resources to empower parents to start the conversation, including locations of clinics for teens to go for services. It also includes ways to talk to kids using a faith-based approach.

Eric Simpson, a pastor of community transformation at Bridge Bible Church, recorded five YouTube videos of himself speaking to his congregation about sex, and how to approach the subject with teenagers. Above all he stresses this: as a parent, be the first to talk to your kids about sex.

“It’s crucial as parents that we’re that first voice,” Simpson said in one of his talks. “What do we do if we aren’t the first voice on an important issue like sex? We need to get it before someone else is telling them.”

He also suggests that abstinence should not be taught, calling sex “awesome” and “great” because it was created by God.

“I know that sounds really crazy coming from a pastor at a church, but we need to stop teaching abstinence,” Simpson said in the recording, stressing that sex isn’t bad on its own, but a conversation about the timing of it needs to take place. “The most important thing I want to protect in you is your heart. Sometimes we think protection means keeping someone in a cage and that is not the answer. Protection is to tell someone the value of what it is, and then they treat it with that value.”

Corson said she’s unaware of any other partnerships throughout the state like the one it has forged with Bridge Bible Church that has drawn in faith leaders to encourage parents to talk with kids about sex, but are hopeful it could spur others to join in.

“We want to partner with education and parents and families and non-faith-based organizations,” Corson said. “Whoever is willing to join us.”

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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