Rise in STDs places teens at higher risk

Emily Chwa and Ben Zhao, Editor-in-Chief and Executive Features Editor

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The first time senior Justin Olson used a condom, he did not think there would be an audience. 

“Sophomore year, I was in a health class with [Mike English, health instructor in the Physical Education department],” said Olson. “[During the sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) unit], he took a wooden penis out of his drawer and handed me a packaged condom, and he said, ‘Here you go, Justin … I want you to put this condom on this wooden penis,’ and I demonstrated to my classmates how to put it on.”

A focal point of sex education, condoms are vital to preventing STDs, which are on the rise according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Oct. 19, 2016. From 2014 to 2015, proportional to the U.S. population, new cases of chlamydia grew 5.9 percent, new cases of gonorrhea grew 12.9 percent and new cases of syphilis grew 19 percent. These rates pose a higher risk for teenagers compared to the rest of the sexually-experienced population as approximately half of new STD infections are diagnosed in the 15 to 24 age group despite the fact that they only make up a quarter of the sexually-experienced population.

John Steever, associate professor of pediatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, said the diseases examined in the CDC report are all bacterial infections that can generally be treated with antibiotic therapy.

“[The report suggests] there are more of these infections in the community, which means that the odds of a person coming into contact with somebody else who has these infections is higher,” Steever said.

According to Barbara Van Der Pol, associate professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, these STDs may spread unknowingly because two-thirds to three-fourths of people who have been infected by an STD do not show any symptoms of the disease, especially in cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea.

“Because such a large proportion of infected individuals do not know they have the infection, they are a potential danger to anyone they sexually come in contact with,” said Van Der Pol. “Unless people get tested regularly, they can play a very big role in the spread of STDs.”

Margaret Blythe, professor of pediatrics and adjunct professor of gynecology at the Indiana University School of Medicine, said the lack of accessibility to confidential clinical facilities, the lack of knowledge about STDs and embarrassment are some major causes in the rise of STD infection rates.

Steever said there are multiple behavioral, biological and cultural reasons that explain the rise in STDs and why teenagers are most at risk to contract one.

“When you look at that data from the CDC, some of the largest jumps in rates of infection are in adolescents and young adults,” said Steever. “ … They are less likely necessarily to be prepared for the onset of sexual activity.”

According to the CDC report, over two-thirds of new chlamydia cases and half of new gonorrhea cases were attributed to Americans aged 15 to 24 years old.

Van Der Pol said the stigma surrounding sexual behavior and STDs and a decrease in government funding for health programs also contribute to the rise in teenage STD infection rates.

Senior Stephanie Serbu said she believes students at Glenbrook North do not feel comfortable openly discussing topics related to sex and STDs and thinks they do not perceive STDs as a real threat.

“I’ve never heard of anyone actually admitting to getting an STD, and basically no one discusses what measures to take to avoid getting one,” said Serbu. “It’s just not something people talk about.”

Steever said teenagers often have inaccurate perceptions about STDs that increase their likeliness of exposure to infection.

“I think a lot of that has to do with many adolescents often [feeling] like they’re not at risk …” said Steever. “You know, ‘I’m not at risk. I can look at a girl and know that she’s got something or not.’”

Olson said teenagers’ increased risk is a result of their impulsive behavior.

“Not to make an over-generalization, but most teenagers are just more impulsive and don’t really think through their decisions as much as they should,” Olson said.

Van Der Pol said she believes teenagers’ behavior does not put them at any increased risk for contracting an STD.

“If you look at the figures, teens have sex at a … proportional rate [to] adults,” said Van Der Pol. “There’s no data that [proves] they are psychologically more likely to be impulsive or risky in a sexual scenario.”

Blythe said minor effects of an STD infection are sores or rashes, but infections left untreated can result in dangerously permanent consequences.

“Non-treatment of chlamydia and gonorrhea, for particularly females, can result in infections of their internal female organs that, long-term, can result in infertility and tubal pregnancies requiring termination of a pregnancy,” said Blythe. “All these infections are considered curable with antibiotics if caught early.”

According to English, the GBN STDs unit covers the signs and symptoms of STDs as well as prevention methods.

“The curriculum gives kids what they need to be safe,” said English. “We say that we feel they should be abstinent, but we are also realistic that not everyone will be abstinent, so we want students to be protected.”

Van Der Pol said critical ways to prevent the spread of STDs are to eliminate stigma surrounding discussion, always wear a condom and limit the number of sex partners one has.

“You never know who has had sex with who, so it’s always better to take extra precautions,” said Van Der Pol. “We need to start confronting these issues so the infection rate doesn’t grow higher than it already is.”

Steever said people must understand the prevalence of STDs, as they can arise in affluent areas or communities people would not expect.

“I don’t think race or wealth or knowledge protects you,” said Steever. “The only way to really protect yourself is to use condoms, talk to your partner about getting tested, get tested and go from there.”

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Rise in STDs places teens at higher risk