Diseases spread as today's teens become sexually active younger
SIKESTON -- A national study found at least one in four teen girls has a sexually transmitted disease, and local health officials say the same trend exists here.
The study, which was released last week by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said a virus that causes cervical cancer --human papillomavirus, or HPV -- is by far the most common sexually transmitted infection in teen girls aged 14 to 19, while the highest overall prevalence is among black girls -- nearly half the blacks studied had at least one STD. That rate compared with 20 percent among both whites and Mexican-American teens, the study found.
The study by CDC researcher Dr. Sara Forhan is an analysis of nationally representative data on 838 girls who participated in a 2003-04 government health survey. 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 herpes simplex virus, 2 percent.
Local health officials say HPV, chlamydia and gonorrhea are among the most common STDs found in the area's teen girls.
"We screen every week for STDs, and what we find is teens are becoming sexually active at a much younger age, and therefore we are seeing STDs in younger girls, which creates health problems down the road," said Brenda Freed, public educator for Scott County Health Department.
Freed said it's not uncommon for a sixth grader today to be sexually active.
Rachelle Johnson, maternal child health coordinator and dietitian at the Mississippi County Health Department, said about 20 percent of seventh and eighth graders in Mississippi County are sexually active.
"That's 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds," said Johnson, who teaches two of 14 sessions of a sex education program which is offered through a cooperative effort between Caring Communities and Mississippi County Health Department.
Johnson said the course is very successful with about 90 percent of students stating the course is helpful to them in end-of-course evaluations.
"We try to get down to their level and explain the importance of their screenings and preventative measures," Johnson said.
Johnson said Charleston R-1 and East Prairie R-2 school districts are fortunate to have the sex education program for their students because not many school districts do.
"Funding is an issue, and a lot of school districts think sex education is a parents' issue -- and it is, but sometimes the kids still get misinformation or not enough information from their parents," Johnson said.
Freed said she goes into Scott County schools -- upon request -- and conducts one-time presentations on preventing STDs.
While New Madrid County Health Department doesn't present a sex education program in the schools, the staff does educate about STD prevention and counsel patients who come through the health department, said Paula Rost, director of nursing at the New Madrid County Health Department.
Rost agreed the study's findings are similar to that of New Madrid County. "It's getting worse. I don't know why (more teens are contracting STDS). It certainly is rampant," Rost said.
According to the national study, about half of the girls acknowledged ever having sex; among them, the rate was 40 percent.
Freed and Rita Cade, a registered nurse at Mississippi County Health Department, said most teen girls who utilize the health departments feel comfortable talking with the staff about their sexual history.
"When we do exams, we privately question them," Cade said. "Usually they are fairly open with us because of the good rapport we have with our clients." Freed agreed.
"Sex is something that young girls are curious about and they feel free to ask questions --whether it's in the classroom or in the clinic setting," Freed said.
Dr. Margaret Blythe, an adolescent medicine specialist at Indiana University School of Medicine and Head of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on adolescence, said the results are similar to previous studies examining rates of those diseases individually.
The CDC recommends annual chlamydia screening for all sexually active women under age 25. It also recommends the three-dose HPV vaccine for girls aged 11-12 years, and catch-up shots for females aged 13 to 26, which the local health departments provide. The health officials said many local teen girls get the HPV vaccine.
"Many STDs can be treated with antibiotics and other medicines, but some of them aren't curable. There are 28 types of STDs and if you get some of these that aren't curable, you have to live with them for the rest of your life," Freed said.
Most sexually transmitted infections of girls who utilize the local health departments are found during annual exams, the health department officials said.
"It's amazing how many (teen girls) discover they have something when they come in for routine pap smears with the cultures," Rost said.
Currently health departments have the means to screen for only gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV and syphilis.
In addition to educating their teen clients, health departments also provide them with condoms as method to prevent STDs.
The health professionals also said they promote abstinence, which is the No. 1 method to prevent sexually transmitted infections.
Meanwhile, Freed said it's important teens have a reliable place to go if they do have questions about sex. "The health department is a great resource for that, and everything is strictly confidential," Freed said. "Even though many STDs don't have symptoms, if someone suspects they have one or is showing symptoms,they definitely need to be checked."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.