Youth and STDs: The Epidemic in our Midst

Sandra Serna-Smith

There is an epidemic of STD infections among older adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 24. And it's past time for an abiding committment to adolescent reproductive and sexual health.

April is National STD Awareness Month and sexual and reproductive health organizations throughout the country urge you to Get Yourself Tested.  Rewire has partnered with The National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD) to produce a series of articles on the importance of STD prevention and treatment among populations throughout the United States.  Other articles in this series include one by Dana Cropper Williams and Peter Leone.

Every April is National STD Awareness Month—a month when various public health organizations publicize the importance of STD education, testing, and treatment. The truth of the matter is one month is not nearly enough time to sound the alarm. Given that the United States continues to have the highest rates of STD infection in the industrialized world, every month should be National STD Awareness Month.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 19 million new infections occur every year in this country, with approximately 48 percent of these new infections occurring in young people ages 15 to 24. Yet, this age group represents only 25 percent of the sexually active population in the United States. The high rate of infection among older adolescents and young adults suggests a risk of life-long health problems.  STD infections often present without symptoms and, if left untreated, some infections may result in infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, an increased risk for HIV, and cancers of the throat, mouth, penis, and cervix.

There are many reasons why adolescents are disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted diseases. Young people often lack access to confidential, youth-centered reproductive health services and care. Others, however, overcome the challenges. Clinics or medical providers can offer appointments during after-school hours, provide nonjudgmental care and services for a reduced fee or on a sliding scale, and give risk-reduction counseling and opportunities for the young person’s questions to be answered and discussed. Drop-in centers like the Broadway Youth Center of Howard Brown in Chicago and The SPOT in St. Louis have fully embraced this approach. Both centers provide youth with a space to take care of a wide variety of their needs, in addition to obtaining access to quality medical care and STD prevention and treatment, job counseling, case management, peer education programs and other forms of social support are also provided.

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The lack of medically accurate and age-appropriate sex education also contributes to the high rate of STDs among adolescents. Sex education that is truly comprehensive doesn’t just talk about the benefits of abstinence and the importance of using condoms consistently and correctly each and every single time one engages in sexual activity. A truly comprehensive sex education curriculum also includes lessons on healthy relationships, communication, and other life skills. Young people want and need unbiased, honest information about both the benefits and risks of sexual intimacy. Like the drop-in centers mentioned above, sex education that focuses on both sexual and nonsexual protective factors can be an important component of effective STD prevention.

Contrary to popular belief, adolescence is a more than just a period of raging hormones. It is a period of emotional growth and development. It is time when young people explore their autonomy and seek to define who they are. The values, habits, and behaviors cultivated during adolescence shape the values, habits, and behaviors we exhibit as adults. That being said, it is also a time for those of us who are deeply committed to improving adolescent reproductive and sexual health to make our impact and strike while the iron is hot.

As part of our adolescent health portfolio, NCSD promotes holistic STD, HIV, and unintended pregnancy prevention efforts. With funding from CDC-Division of Adolescent and School Health, NCSD has partnered with three other national public health membership organizations to promote systemic change when addressing negative sexual health outcomes among young people. This project, known as the National Stakeholders Collaborative, brings together state health departments and state education agencies to improve HIV, STD, and unintended and teen pregnancy prevention for school-aged youth. Through this process of facilitated collaboration, states have implemented a variety of initiatives. In Michigan, for example, partners have created a statewide school-based STD screening guide and a new partnership to fund STD screening “blitzes” in various schools around the state. In Missouri, colleagues established statewide Youth Advisory Committees who provide input on how to improve HIV and STD treatment, prevention, and care for youth. This model of collaboration between the public systems of health and education is, we believe, a real path toward systemic change that is direly needed.

New federal funds, like those offered through the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH), provide us with a genuine opportunity to fundamentally change the game on how our nation approaches the difficult task of improving adolescent sexual and reproductive health. This opportunity, however, must focus on the establishment of multi-pronged, collaborative STD, HIV, and teen pregnancy prevention programs that include both public and private partnerships.

Adolescents bear the brunt of our lack of care as a nation in addressing sexual health, and the astonishingly high rates of STDs among them is the outcome of that neglect. So this STD Awareness Month, let’s make sure we are encouraging our young people to talk, to become informed, and to seek testing for STDs and other health care services to keep them healthy.

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