STI 911

CDC: One in four teens has a sexually transmitted infection. Someone's not giving them the 411.

Published March 12, 2008 3:20PM (EDT)

Hey, kids, how's that abstinence-only sex ed going for you? The answer, if you ask the grown-ups, often has to do with how many teens simply don't abstain and how many get pregnant (PDF) as a result. But the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remind us that there are other consequences to sexual cluelessness, and right now, they're pretty darn dire. That is, the first study of its kind on this demographic has revealed that one in four American girls has a sexually transmitted infection. At least one STI, actually. Mostly HPV (which can cause cervical cancer), then chlamydia (linked to infertility), plus herpes simplex and trichomoniasis. Nearly half the black teens surveyed had an STI, compared with 20 percent among both whites and Mexican-American teens.

From a purely mathematical perspective, the HPV numbers, at least, are (sadly) not surprising. According to the CDC, nearly half of sexually active people can expect to acquire an HPV infection at some point. (It doesn't help that when it comes to prevention, HPV is basically the Kitty Pryde of STIs. Or, more to the point, it can infect areas not covered by a condom. Which, some have -- essentially -- argued, is one of the reasons we needn't bother telling kids about condoms in the first place.)

But still. One in four? Some related CDC studies shed some light, finding that many young women at high risk of infection -- like those seeking emergency contraception, suggesting recent unprotected sex -- do not receive necessary prevention and screening services. According to MSNBC, the CDC recommends annual chlamydia screening for all sexually active women under age 25, plus the controversial HPV vaccine for girls. The American Academy of Pediatrics makes similar recommendations.

MSNBC notes that teens don't get screened because they don't get why they're at risk -- and that some doctors think weird Madonna/whore thoughts like "sexually transmitted diseases don't happen to the kinds of patients I treat." Thanks? Other doctors -- and patients -- are apparently skittish because of confidentiality concerns; in many cases, parents would have to be told of the results. Yeah ... that's no good. The AAP supports confidential teen screening.

Experts also say all sorts of unhelpful myths persist, like the one about douching with Coke as a way to kill germs and the one about how you can't get an STI if he pulls out, or if it's your first time, or if you're "not a skank," or if you just figure, really really hard, that it's not gonna happen to you. Remember, some of these kids may have had sex ed texts that told them the best way to prevent an STI is to "get plenty of rest." So.

"We need education programs in our schools that will keep teens healthy -- by including information about abstinence as well as contraception, healthy communication, responsible decision making, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections," said Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards, noting that Iowa just became the 17th state to reject federal funding for abstinence-only programs. How about we get those stats up to, oh, 50 out of 50?

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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