This article is published in partnership with the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD) as part of our joint series on STD Awareness.
Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Awareness Month is an important opportunity to get young people thinking and talking about STD prevention, testing and treatment. STDs are all too common — 19 million new cases are reported every year — and young people have disproportionately high rates of STDs. In fact, 15- to 24-year-olds represent only one-quarter of all sexually active people, yet they account for nearly half of the new cases of STDs each year.
Most people infected with an STD don’t know it. As the nation’s leading sexual and reproductive health care provider and advocate, Planned Parenthood knows firsthand the consequences of contracting an STD: while many STDs can be easily treated, they can also have significant health effects, including increasing the risk of HIV infection, infertility, and cancer. It’s one reason why we’ve partnered with MTV, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in marking STD Awareness Month through the award-winning GYT — Get Yourself Tested — campaign. Now in its fourth year, the campaign is aimed at encouraging young people to get tested and treated, and to get us talking about STDs and sexual health.
Unfortunately, lack of information, misinformation, and social stigma keep many young people from getting tested for STDs. Young people need to know that getting tested is relatively easy and painless, and that it’s simply a basic part of staying healthy. It’s also important they understand that most STDs are treatable, which is why routine STD testing is critical. Early treatment stops STDs from causing more serious problems and prevents people from passing them on: the sooner someone knows their status and the status of their partner, the sooner they can be treated. STD Awareness Month is a good time to encourage young people to get tested at their local Planned Parenthood health center or through another health care provider. And free or reduced-cost testing is available at many Planned Parenthood health centers and local health departments.
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But testing can’t be the only step. The good news is that STDs are largely preventable with condom use, and people start out protecting themselves. In fact, 80 percent of teen boys use condoms the first time they have sex. But condom use quickly becomes inconsistent or stops altogether. Motivating young people to use a condom every time they have sex — not just the first time — in order to reduce the rates of both STDs and unintended pregnancy is a key goal for everyone who cares about youth. This is important even if they are using another form of birth control, since condoms (both latex condoms and female condoms) are the only form of birth control that also protects against STDs.
Planned Parenthood health centers provide more than four million tests and treatments for STDs every year. But since testing should always be paired with prevention, we go beyond that. Our education programs in diverse settings such as schools, community centers, and churches reach 1.1 million people yearly, and we now reach close to 10,000 people every month through our chat/text service, and our website, plannedparenthood.org, received more than four million visits last month alone. We encourage everyone, especially young people, to get talking about their sexual health and get educated about prevention of both STDs and unplanned pregnancy.
STD Awareness Month is the perfect opportunity to remind everyone that positive sexual health doesn’t stop at getting tested, and that Planned Parenthood is here to provide both testing and information. The risks of STDs among young people remain high, and the best protection that sexually active people have against becoming infected is to use protection, like a condom, every time they have sex. We need to make sure that young people are getting tested if they have had unprotected sex, getting educated, and using the tools and resources available to them to prevent both STD transmission and unintended pregnancy. We know what works to reduce STD rates and teen pregnancy rates — now we have to make it work for more young people.