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Senator presents graphic safe-sex slide show

WASHINGTON—Those who attended Sen. Tom Coburn's safe-sex slide show Thursday thinking they'd be told about the birds and the bees in the hallowed halls of the Capitol probably left disappointed—and a little nauseated. They should've known better.

For six years as a congressman in the 1990s, Coburn showed Capitol Hill staffers and interns graphic presentations on the effects of sexually transmitted diseases and the best ways to prevent them.

The Oklahoma Republican, a practicing physician who returned to Congress in January as a senator after a four-year hiatus, once again is making his safe-sex slide show an annual event.

In an hourlong presentation that was light on politics but heavy on pictures and statistics, Coburn outlined the prevalence of STDs and said the best chance of avoiding them was to postpone sex. On a blank portion of a wall flanked by black-and-white pictures of congressional buildings, Coburn projected images of STD infections, including one of a herpes-infected penis.

"This is what it looks like on an active outbreak on the dorsum of the penis," Coburn told about 100 Hill staffers and interns. "I can guarantee you that hurts."

The best way to avoid STDs, he said, is to abstain from "risky sexual activities," including premarital sex.

"The reason a message to wait is important is that it reduces health risks," he said, citing statistics indicating that Americans are likely to have more sexual partners when they are younger.

Coburn acknowledged the importance of condoms in preventing the transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but said they weren't as effective in stopping other STDs, such as those that aren't acquired from bodily transmissions.

"Condoms make a difference," he said. "If you know anybody out there (sexually) active, have them use `em."

Coburn has come under fire from some health advocates, who claim his criticism of condoms isn't helping to stanch the spread of STDs.

Coburn, formerly a co-chair of President Bush's Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, has called on federal regulators repeatedly to require condom manufacturers to publish information about what he says is the device's inability to prevent the transmission of human papillomavirus, which is spread through the skin.

Deborah Arrindell, the vice president for health policy for the American Social Health Association in Washington, a nongovernmental organization that disseminates information about STDs, said her group was concerned that Coburn's initiatives discouraged condom use, though the association agreed with him that abstinence was the best way to protect against STDs.

"Right now, condoms are what we have, and undermining the public's confidence in condoms can only lead to harm," she said Tuesday.

Arrindell, who hasn't seen Coburn's slide show, also questioned the effectiveness of using graphic images of infections in STD education.

"Our concern is that fear-based messages really are not helping and not the way to get people to protect themselves," she said.

Several attendees of Thursday's slide show said seeing the pictures helped them understand the seriousness of getting STDs.

"If I wasn't shown the pictures, there was only so much I could imagine," said Patricia Perez, 18, of Miami, a summer intern in Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart's office. "Those pictures would scare anyone from having unprotected sexual intercourse."

John Hart, the senator's press secretary, said Coburn used the images because he was making a medical, not an ideological, presentation.

Thursday's event was dubbed "Revenge of the STDs," in tribute to the latest "Star Wars" movie, "The Revenge of the Sith."

Attendees were greeted with the movie's ominous soundtrack and treated to free pizza and soda, and they had the opportunity to pose questions to Coburn, whom Hart said has "seen virtually every kind of sexually transmitted disease."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tom Coburn

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