Putting the wrap on STDs
Charlotte County residents can now drive, bike or walk down the “condom trail” for free and easily accessible prophylactics.
About a dozen local businesses and agencies in Punta Gorda, Port Charlotte and Englewood have become pit stops on the crusade for safe sex.
For decades, free condoms have been available at health department clinics throughout the state, and officials are pushing to make them more accessible to the public.
But according to the Florida Health Department, the number of cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in Charlotte County has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. Soaring gas prices, few bicycle paths, and no central bus service have made transportation to the Charlotte County Health Department a problem for many people locally.
“The health department is set out from the main area of town,” said Eric Stockley, prevention training consultant for Charlotte County Health Department. “It’s difficult for our clients to get here, especially for something as simple as a condom. Are you really going to walk five miles for this?”
Charlotte County’s “trail” is an extension of the one created in Sarasota County, which has been in existence since 2007. Stockley, who also serves on the Regional HIV/AIDS Council, is targeting mainly tattoo parlors, most of which have an 18-to-enter policy, to avoid teens from openly accessing the condoms.
Charlotte County Public Schools has a strict abstinence-only policy when it comes to children’s sex education. According to Ellen Harvey, curriculum specialist for fine arts and world languages, condoms and condom use are not discussed in the schools.
While a 2011 survey by the FDOH found that about 48.2 percent of students in public high school were sexually active, that number has decreased by 3 percent in the last decade. The CCHD offers a teen site dedicated to informing youth about prevention, and will give teens condoms if they ask for them. Check the health department’s website at www.doh.state.fl.us/chdcharlotte/index.html for a list of locations.
According to Joan Surso, prevention training consultant for the Sarasota County Health Department, the packaging for the brand being distributed, One, is very appealing to the public, who are “just eating them up.” The shape of the package is round, and decorated with graphic art and witty slogans. The condoms come in a variety of sizes and flavors.
“The kids are getting a kick out of the graphics,” said Scott Cooper, owner of Big Daddy’s Tattoo on Tamiami Trail in Port Charlotte, which is one of the businesses distributing the products.
He offered a middle-of-the road opinion of the program: “It seems like a cool company.”
Stockley said that since beginning the campaign three months ago, he has distributed over 1,000 condoms each month. However, he also cautions that adults over 50 are becoming one of the highest-risk groups for STDs in the nation.
“People are very quick to point the finger at youth,” Stockley said. “But studies have shown youths are more likely to use protection. Twenty percent of all new HIV cases are people over 50.”
Stockley said that healthier lifestyles, prescriptions and a longer lifespan are keeping folks sexually active longer in their lives.
“The two biggest issues are that people of that generation historically didn’t use condoms,” said Marne Cothran, public information officer for CCHD. “That combined with the fact that women that age don’t get pregnant and therefore don’t think they need protection.”
Stockley wants to expand the program and offer the free condoms to other businesses like bars and salons. He also has condoms for women available. The service is no cost to participants and dispensers are refilled every month by the CCHD.