We're No. 1! In STDs!

An alarming rise in chlamydia and syphilis, especially in girls

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 16, 2009 5:17PM (EST)

Proving yet again that America leads the world, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced today that our nation has set a new record for sexually transmitted diseases.

In 2008, we clocked in an all-time high of 1.2 million new cases of chlamydia and an estimated 6.2 million of HPV. Syphilis, which once looked to have gone the way of Prohibition and ragtime, has also mounted an impressive comeback with 13,500 new cases last year. The CDC says 19 million new cases of STDs are transmitted annually in the U.S., almost half of which are in people under the age of 24. And chlamydia and gonorrhea are highest among girls aged 15-19. And thanks to far-reaching potential side effects like cervical cancer and pelvic inflammatory disease, the report noted that “Women and infants disproportionately bear the long term consequences of STDs.”

So maybe that whole “abstinence only” thing hasn’t been working out so well. And when one contrasts our head-in-the-sand attitude to sexuality compared with, say, the frenzied response to H1N1, it is to laugh, albeit ruefully. On the bright side, those big numbers represent a spike not just in transmission, but in diagnosis.

John Douglas, director of the division of sexually transmitted diseases, said today that “We have among the highest rates of STDs of any developed country in the world,” adding, “We haven't been promoting the full battery of messages. We have been sending people out with one seatbelt in the whole car.  We are not honestly and openly dealing with this issue -- and it's the larger issue of sexual health."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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