CDC To Investigate How Panel on Conference Panel on STIs, Abstinence Education Was Formed, Official SaysCDC spokesperson Tom Skinner on Friday said the agency will investigate the original formation of a panel that last week discussed efficacy of abstinence-until-marriage programs in reducing the rate of sexually transmitted infections at the 2006 National STD Prevention Conference in Jacksonville, Fla., last week, CQ HealthBeat reports (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 5/12). According to government officials, CDC changed the name of the abstinence panel, which was held on Tuesday, from "Are Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs a Threat to Public Health?" to "Public Health Strategies of Abstinence Programs for Youth," and the conference added two speakers to the panel who were not reviewed by the meeting's organizers and removed another. The office of Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) in an e-mail sent to HHS earlier this month had asked whether CDC was "clear about the controversial nature of [the conference] and its obvious antiabstinence objective" and asked for a shift in the focus of the conference. Souder was concerned because one of the speakers on the original panel was scheduled to speak about a report produced by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that is critical of abstinence programs, while no one was scheduled to speak in favor of the programs. Waxman on Tuesday in a letter to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt questioned whether the department allowed Souder to influence the change in the panel, calling on HHS and CDC to pledge that decisions about future members of conference panels be made by scientists and their public health colleagues "and not [be] subjected to political litmus tests" (Kaiser Daily Women's Health Policy Report, 5/11).
Skinner said the changes in the panel were "just an effort to bring more balance" to the forum. However, Maryjo Oster -- a Pennsylvania State University student who had planned to discuss how abstinence programs were linked to increases in STI rates but was removed from the panel -- on Friday said she received an e-mail on April 26 from a CDC staff member that said the panel was being changed "due to political pressures from up above" (CQ HealthBeat, 5/12). Bruce Trigg, who heads an STI program in New Mexico and organized the panel, on Friday said he received a phone call earlier this month from CDC saying that "we can't have a one-sided criticism of a government program." Trigg added, "This is a level of interference in the public health community that I don't think we've seen before." Souder Press Secretary Martin Green said, "How we can be accused of injecting politics into this is pretty extraordinary," adding, "We would argue strongly what we've done is remove politics from this panel" (Jadrnak, Albuquerque Journal, 5/12). Skinner said CDC supports a "comprehensive approach" to preventing STIs (CQ HealthBeat, 5/12).