One in four girls ages 14 to 19 is infected with at least one of four sexually transmitted diseases: human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and genital herpes. Last week, the Center for Disease Control released this data from the first national study of incidence rates in teenage girls of theses diseases. From the 838 young women surveyed and tested nationwide, researchers estimate 3.2 million girls are infected with one of these four STDs.
HPV was the most common form of infection, with 18% of girls testing positive. HPV, which is preventable if a vaccine is provided, is linked to the development of cervical cancer and genital warts. Many young women do not know they are infected. If left untreated, these STDs can lead to recurrent, irritated genital sores, painful pelvic inflammatory disease, permanent damage to the fallopian tubes and uterus, infertility, and potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy. Individuals with these STDs are also much more vulnerable to HIV infection.
It is expected that the overall sexually transmitted infection (STI) rate is significantly higher when factoring in other diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and HIV. This startling new data urges us to ask how we can prevent STIs in young people. The CDC’s website lists abstinence, monogamous relationships, and condom use as the first three ways to avoid transmission of an STI. However, are these realistic approaches to prevention with teenage girls?
Some physicians and reproductive health advocates argue that the high rates are a reflection of abstinence-only sex education. Others accuse sex education programs that include options outside of abstinence of encouraging sexual activity. However, do we know enough about how teenage girls as young as fourteen make sexual choices to prescribe effective prevention methods? Why do teenage girls decide to have sex? What can we understand about young women’s interest in and decisions about sex from the infection rate? How do girls and young women decide what prevention methods to use or not to use? What compels some to use condoms and others not to? What do we need to know about young mens’ behavior and perceptions about sex and STDs to answer these questions?
What connections can be made and what differences need to be explored between teen and adult sexual choices where the infection rate is at 19 million new sexually transmitted infections each year? In terms of screenings, should teens be able to have confidential tests administered without their parents’ knowledge? Should such screenings be mandatory? Should high schools be providing STI screenings for students?
For more informaiton, please contact Kristin Millikan at 312.422.5580.