It’s heartening when Milwaukee gets named to positive top 10 lists: best places for singles (Kiplinger), best cities for recent college graduates (CreditDonkey).
It’s quite disheartening when our city gets named to not-so-positive top 10 lists. Since 2002, Milwaukee has been one of the top three cities in the nation for chlamydia rates and in the top five for gonorrhea. What’s more, in 2012, Milwaukee made up 47 percent of the new sexually transmitted infection (STI) cases in Wisconsin. And 67.7 percent of new STI cases in Milwaukee were among people ages 15–24.
“We don’t have to be in the top 10,” says Bevan Baker, Milwaukee’s health commissioner. “We can work together as a community to pull back those rankings.”
An aggressive new condom campaign, 414ALL, aims to do just that. The campaign, which launched Feb. 27, uses free condom distribution, social marketing, community forums and education to increase the availability and acceptability of condoms for Milwaukee teens. Bus shelter ads feature the campaign slogan “We’ve got you covered,” and the 414ALL website (414allmke.org) features Google maps of locations where free condoms are available.
“Condoms are the only way for individuals who choose to have sex to prevent the spread of STI infections,” says Kristen Donat, program coordinator for Diverse & Resilient, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender support organization that is spearheading 414ALL. “Condom use is not something people talk about a lot, so we’re trying to get some knowledge out there.”
The organizers of 414ALL hope to replicate the success of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative, led by the United Way of Greater Milwaukee. In 2008, Milwaukee’s teen pregnancy rates were second in the nation. Thanks to that initiative, the rates have since dropped by 50 percent.
But Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact at United Way, couldn’t help but notice that despite the drop in teen pregnancy rates, STI rates were unchanged. “That indicated to us the absence of consistent protection being used in the form of condoms,” she says.
To maximize the success of 414ALL, Diverse & Resilient conducted a communitywide “readiness assessment,” including quizzing focus groups made up of the young people the campaign most wants to reach. Among those was Quintin Smith-Bickham, 18, who is now a volunteer community health promoter – a peer educator – for 414ALL. He hands out free condoms and spreads the message about their correct use.
“Talking about safe sex is touchy,” admits Smith-Bickham, a senior at Pulaski High School. “People believe you should wait for marriage, which is a message we promote as well. But the truth is students are having sex at 10 or 11. Nobody is saying, ‘Wrap it up, use a condom.’ And there is a lot of misinformation out there.”
Adds Angresano: “To counter the concern that if kids are given condoms, they will have sex, national data shows just the opposite. If you increase the opportunity for young people to access contraception, there is no corresponding increase in young people being sexually active.”
Baker, the father of a teenage girl, is more than professionally involved with these issues. “These are difficult discussions to have with teens, and some of us are not ready for prime time on this,” he says. “But we have to take our heads out of the sand. It’s irresponsible not to talk about sex with kids. Young people are the most important resource this city has.”