WASHINGTON, DC—In a mandatory, nationwide health initiative many Americans are dreading, all U.S. citizens will be tested for scoliosis Friday.

Testing begins early in a San Francisco junior-high-school gym.

"Though some people may think it's a laughing matter, scoliosis is no joke," said Dr. David Krasnow of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is overseeing the testing. "An untreated case will result in significant deformity of the spine. So we can either act like mature ladies and gentlemen and get through the screenings quickly, or goof off and make it harder for everyone."

The scoliosis checks, to be conducted in junior-high-school gymnasiums across the U.S., are intended to diagnose and prevent the degenerative condition, which produces an S- or C-shaped curvature in the spine. During the 30-second procedure, citizens will bend forward roughly 25 degrees while federal health workers look for any abnormal distension, such as a bulging rib or fullness in the lumbar area. If a citizen tests positive for scoliosis, he or she will be fitted for a custom brace designed to halt the progression of the curvature.

Americans of both sexes will be asked to disrobe to the waist. Women will be permitted to keep their bras on.

Krasnow stressed that the screenings are mandatory, and that every American is expected to show up at his or her designated auditorium.

"If you're sick or otherwise unavailable on Thursday, we'll be contacting you to reschedule," Krasnow said. "We'll also be on the lookout for forged parental notes excusing people from the test."

Though Dallas resident Julie Muldowney, 42, plans to comply, she questioned the screenings' necessity.

"I don't get it," Muldowney said. "I remember getting tested for scoliosis back in seventh or eighth grade. We had to step behind a screen in the girls' locker room, and the school nurse examined our backs for curvatures. It was incredibly unpleasant and embarrassing. Why do they need to check us again?"

Also skeptical is Baltimore resident Eddie Woodson. Fitted with a cervico-thoraco-lumbo-sacral-orthosis brace after being diagnosed with scoliosis during the last nationwide screening in 1999, the 51-year-old landscaper said his range of motion has been severely restricted ever since.

"The doctor told me to wear this thing 23 hours a day, and I can only take it off to swim or play," said Woodson, his head held upright by a neck ring anchored to the plastic, custom-molded device. "When I asked him if I could take it off to work, he said no. This is ridiculous. I probably lived with this condition for years, and it never bothered me. You try lifting rolls of sod with this damn thing on."

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson rejected such criticisms, insisting that the benefits of scoliosis screening far outweigh the inconvenience.

"I assure you, the government is not doing this just to be meanies," Thompson said. "As Americans get older and look back on these screenings, I am confident they'll come to understand just how important they really were. That goes for all of our programs."

Thompson was alluding to such unpopular HHS programs as the annual mandatory head-lice inspection, the hearing test, and "Friday the Thir-teeth," a dental-hygiene fair at which HHS officials dress in foam molar costumes to distribute toothbrushes and small red tablets which, when chewed, expose plaque on the teeth.

Thompson said he believes a majority of Americans view the scoliosis test favorably, citing the example of Verona, WI, resident Alan Righetti.

"The scoliosis test is awesome," said Righetti, 35. "The last one was held in the school cafeteria, and there were partitions between the men and the women. But if you looked between the partitions, you could see the ladies in their bras."

Continued Righetti: "The Scoliosis Man comic book they gave out was pretty lame, but at least it wasn't as dumb as that one we got from the suicide-awareness and prevention assembly. Me and my buddies down at the lumber yard still quote it, it's so stupid: 'Chad, do you want my portable cassette player? I don't want it anymore.' 'But, Ben, I don't get it. That's your most prized possession!' Yeah, we get it—suicidal people give their stuff away! How dumb is that?"

The next mandatory HHS initiative is slated for October. Titled "It's Perfectly Natural," the program will address the topic of menstruation.

"We'll be giving out free Kotex sanitary napkins and tampons, and showing the 1973 film Donna, You're Not Alone," Krasnow said. "And if you men out there think you're exempt from attending, think again. We'll be holding a concurrent, men-only talk about what to expect from puberty. And let's refrain from the giggling, shall we?"