A new federal study suggests that one in four American teenage girls age 14 to 19 has a sexually transmitted infection. Among black teens the number was almost half.
Overall, the percentage translates to 3.2 million female adolescents who have at least one infection. Human papillomavirus (HPV) was by far the most common STI, affecting 18 percent of the girls studied.
The study’s outcome stunned medical experts, some of whom immediately raised the question of how much damage has been done by abstinence-only education programs that don’t address prevention of STI’s. For those teens who acknowledged having sex, the infection rate was 40 percent.
“This is pretty shocking,” said Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital in New York.
The study shows “the national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure, and teenage girls are paying the real price,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Researchers with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the results Tuesday at the 2008 National STD Prevention Conference in Chicago. Here’s the abstract and the CDC’s press release.
The Chicago Tribune breaks down some of the details:
The teens were tested for four infections: human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer and affected 18 percent of girls studied; chlamydia, which affected 4 percent; trichomoniasis, 2.5 percent; and genital herpes, 2 percent.
Dr. John Douglas, director of the CDC’s division of STD prevention, said the results are the first to examine the combined national prevalence of common sexually transmitted diseases among adolescent girls. He said the data, now a few years old, likely reflect current prevalence rates.
Disease rates were significantly higher among black girls — nearly half had at least one STD, versus 20 percent among both whites and Mexican-Americans.
HPV, the cancer-causing virus, can also cause genital warts but often has no symptoms. A vaccine targeting several HPV strains recently became available, but Douglas said it probably hasn’t yet had much impact on HPV prevalence rates in teen girls.
The study found that among those with an infection, 15 percent had more than one type of infection.
Rachel notes that this study “didn’t even count HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis … Yikes.”
CDC researchers stressed the need for screening, vaccination and prevention strategies. Making sure schools educate boys and girls about the STI prevention, symptoms and treatment would be a good start.
Over at Scarleteen, Nicole writes, “When accurate or trust-worthy sources of information about sex and sexually transmitted infections are drowned out by conflicting and harmful messages about human sexuality, it’s difficult to know that there’s no shame — or should be [no] shame — in having sex and getting tested for STIs and using condoms — that, in fact, by using condoms and getting screened on a regular [basis] is showing that you care about your own health — and the health of your partner.”