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'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' May Put Soldiers' Health at Risk, Doctor Says

Posted Dec 01 2010 12:00pm
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Gay service members with STDs often avoid military doctors or go undiagnosed.

WEDNESDAY, Dec. 1 (HealthDay News) - A physician with experience caring for armed forces personnel says the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy puts both service members and the general public at risk by encouraging secrecy about sexual health issues.

"Infections go undiagnosed. Service members and their partners go untreated," Dr. Kenneth Katz, a physician at San Diego State University and the University of California at San Diego, wrote in a commentary published Dec. 1 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

And civilians "pay a price" because they have sex with service members who miss out on programs aimed at preventing the spread of the HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases, Katz wrote.

The military is currently pondering the end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which does not allow gay service members to serve openly. No one knows how many gays are in the armed forces. However, one 2002 study found that active-duty Navy sailors made up 9 percent of the patients who visited one gay men's health clinic in San Diego.

Katz writes that he treated one active-duty gay member of the military who visited a sexually transmitted disease clinic in San Diego and was diagnosed with gonorrhea. Even though the military covered the man's medical expenses, he feared his career would be jeopardized if he went to a military doctor over issues of sexual health.

The U.S. military has said it will no longer use confidential medical information in its efforts to ferret out gay service members. But Katz writes that service members have told him that they haven't heard about such a change.

In an interview, a psychologist who studies sexual orientation issues said that Katz "may be underselling the risks" posed to service members who must keep their personal lives private in order to avoid losing their jobs.

Research has shown that the act of inhibiting oneself is unhealthy, according to David Huebner, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Utah.

On the other hand, he said, "if you disclose things that are personally difficult to you in a constructive way, your physical health can improve."

Physicians often deal with mental health issues, Heubner added, and they'll be hobbled if service members aren't open about themselves.

More information

To learn more about sexually transmitted diseases, head to the U.S. National Library of Medicine .

(SOURCES: David Huebner, Ph.D., MPH, assistant professor, psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; New England Journal of Medicine, early online, Dec. 1, 2010.)

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