The study, which is the first of its kind to explore this age group, was based on data from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and comes as an alarming wakeup call. The study found that African-American young women are affected the worst: Nearly half are infected, compared to 20 percent of white and Mexican-American young women. Human papilloma virus (at 18 percent) and Chlamydia (at 4 percent) were the most common infections. Fifteen percent of the infected young women had more than one STD, and some were even unaware they had the disease(s).
Another aspect of the study revealed the even more shocking statistic that, of the nearly half of teens that reported being sexually active (a statistic that reaches more than two-thirds after the first year of college), a whopping 40 percent are infected with one of the four diseases (HPV, Chlamydia, genital herpes and trichomoniasis) tested for. This number alarmingly indicates that "nearly half of the sexually experienced teens at any one time have evidence of an STD," according to Indiana University School of Medicine adolescent medicine specialist, Dr. Margaret Blythe.
The disturbing CDC figures deal a disturbing blow to parents, doctors and teens alike. Given the disastrous consequences STDs can deliver, including infertility and cervical cancer, and the ease with which they spread, Kevin Fenton, M.D., director of CDC's National Center for HIVAIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, issued the statement that "STD screening, vaccination and other prevention strategies for sexually active women are among our highest public health priorities."
While the study is disturbing, it comes as little surprise. In my own experiences in middle and high school, I have repeatedly observed the casual and lighthearted tone in which teens talk about their own and others' sexual encounters and the flippancy with which they chose their sexual partners and choose to engage in sexual activity.
Upon visiting a college campus last month, I picked up a copy of the school's newspaper. Much to my surprise, the back page was a silly exposé that included a section of quotes describing students' "most memorable sexual experiences," and a graph comparing all the different places on campus in which students reported having sex - from the bike storage room, to the wheat fields, to the health center, to a library study room. To be honest, I was somewhat taken aback by the nonchalant character of the page. I felt like an intruder on moments that were supposed to be intimate and private, and as cliché as the statement sounds, the page made it seem as though "everyone was doing it" - and void of any negative repercussions; where was the mention of STDs and unplanned pregnancies, or emotional attachment and heartbreak?
I suppose I just feel as if the concept of sex has been incredibly cheapened by the openness with which people discuss it, and the failure to discuss all parts of it - possible negative consequences and all. It is no wonder that girls are getting infected with sexually transmitted diseases at rates faster than ever, and that they are often under the misguided impression that that sort of thing will never happen to them.
Perhaps girls are too trusting of their sexual partners, or not discriminating enough in choosing them. It is also possible that there is greater concern (and thus greater precaution taken) with avoiding pregnancy, than with avoiding STDs.
Some point to abstinence-only sex education as the root of the issue, like the president of Planned Parenthood, Cecile Richards, who deems the promotion of such programs "a $1.5 billion failure" for which "teenage girls are paying the real price." It is possible that without proper education, girls may be under the impression that contraceptives like the birth control pill or patch protect them against STDs as well as pregnancies, when this in fact is not the case.
It is easy to see that a combination of causes lies at the root of this problem - a problem that is certainly not going away any time soon. The most obvious solutions to reducing the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases in teens include regular screenings, vaccinations, and the practice of "safe sex" - and with the proper attention, awareness and education, these solutions can fairly easily be effectively implemented. However, I fear that on top of these medical precautions, it will take a generational paradigm shift to effectively reduce or eliminate the prevalence of STDs. Either that, or we must come to accept the realities that accompany a society of increased openness and casual comfort with experiences that are not only traditionally private and intimate, but consequence-laden.
The 411 offers information and insight on the teen scene by Katharine O'Hara, a senior at San Ramon Valley High School who spends her free time going to concerts, enjoying her friends, and playing the piano. E-mail her at email@example.com.