At a conference on STI prevention in Atlanta on Tuesday, the CDC released a study reporting that one in four teen girls in America, sexually active or not, has a sexually transmitted infection — a total of three million girls infected. The study focused on teens aged 14 to 19, and found that half of all African-American and twenty percent of white teen girls are infected with HPV, Chlamydia, genital warts or trichomoniasis.
In response to the news, CDC staffers called for increased screening for STIs and vaccination. "Given that the health effects of STDs for women – from infertility to cervical cancer – are particularly severe, STD screening, vaccination and other prevention strategies for sexually active women are among our highest public health priorities," said Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention. And Dr. John Douglas, director of CDC's Division of STD Prevention, said that "STD screening and early treatment can prevent some of the most devastating effects of untreated STDs."
Screening and treatment – sounds like half a plan, the half that focuses on minimizing the severity of the health consequences for teens who do become infected. What about medically accurate prevention education that would help teens avoid getting infected in the first place? Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, called for that which CDC staffers studiously avoided mentioning: "Today's news that more than three million teenage girls have a sexually transmitted infection (STI) emphasizes the need for real comprehensive sex education," Richards said in a statement. "The national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure, and teenage girls are paying the real price."
But education is not just about preventing new infections. It will be doctors who will be doing the screening, the vaccinating, and the dispensing of the early treatment to teen girls. How can teens get involved in and take ownership of their health status? It can't happen without access to medically accurate health information.
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Proponents of the HPV vaccine have stressed the importance of vaccinating girls before they become sexually active. Why? The vaccine is most effective for women who are not yet infected with any of the four strains of HPV that the vaccine protects against. And the same holds true for education — it's needed before the onset of sexual activity. Studies show that girls who use contraception at their first sexual encounter are far more likely than those who don't to use contraception consistently throughout their lives. Teens need to learn to take control of their sexual health before they're sexually active.
The conference also highlighted two other studies that demonstrate the need for a more comprehensive approach to sexual and reproductive health services for teens. One of the studies found that while a vast majority of sexually active 15- to 24-year-old women receive either contraceptive or STI services (82%), only 39% receive both. A second study found that just 27% of young women who were seeking emergency contraception, an indicator or recent unprotected sex, were tested for Chlamydia or gonorrhea. The message is clear: when young women turn to health centers for care, reproductive health and sexual health services aren't sufficiently integrated and, like our HIV prevention work overseas, miss significant opportunities for prevention education.