Sexually transmitted diseases rampant among teenage girls in the U.S.

WNI Graphics/David Beaty

WNI Graphics/David Beaty

PRESCOTT - Researchers for the Center for Disease Control released some startling information March 11 as part of the 2008 National STD Prevention Conference in Chicago, Ill.

A new CDC study indicates that one in four (26 percent) of teenage girls in the United States has at least one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) - human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, herpes simplex virus and trichomonias. The authors examined high-risk HPV types, including 23 types of the virus that are known to cause cancer, and the two types that cause most genital warts.

Under the leadership of CDC's Dr. Sara Forhan, the study also finds that STDs are more prevalent in African-American teenage girls. Nearly half of the young African-American women (48 percent) tested positive for an STD, compared to 20 percent of young white women.

The two most prevalent STDs overall were human papillomavirus, or HPV (18 percent), and chlamydia (4 percent). Researchers based the data on an analysis of the 2003-04 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Yavapai County Community Health Services Communicable Disease Prevention Program Manager Ronda Atkinson said it is difficult to get information about the number of local STD cases.

"STDs are reportable, but they are not reported. It is hard to get good numbers," she said.

Atkinson said Arizona ranks 16th among states in the number of chlamydia cases. She said Arizona officials report 370.2 cases per 100,000 people. The U.S. average is 332.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people.

Arizona ranks seventh for syphilis, but it is not typically a STD among teenagers.

For public health officials, prevention is the best way to fight STDs. Prevention includes screening, vaccinations and education.

Atkinson said that in the fall health professionals will include the vaccination for HPV as part of childhood vaccinations for girls.

Atkinson said community health services officials perform STD screenings through its reproductive health program.

Education is the third important leg of STD prevention.

At the top of the list is learning that abstinence is the only foolproof way to prevent an STD.

"We teach children to talk to their parents if they have any questions or if they need information. We also encourage parents to talk to their children," Atkinson said. "Parents should know that just because they talk to their kids about sex doesn't mean they are going to be sexually active."

Atkinson said North Star (formerly the Teenage Pregnancy Prevention program, or TAPP), teaches children how to make healthy choices, and not just about sex. She said sex is only one piece of the puzzle.

Atkinson teaches children how to make choices as part of the community health service's Making Proud Choices program.

She conducts classes after school or outside of the school setting.

The program, Atkinson said, is all about empowerment. "We teach boys and girls refusal skills," she said.

Yavapai County Community Health Services Public Information Officer Tamra Larrabee said the program is about "Shared responsibilities and deciding whether the risks they take are appropriate for the plans they have for their life."

Atkinson said parents should work toward open communication.

"Most kids don't want to talk to their parents about sex. Parents are from a different generation and they may not be aware what is happening. We encourage parents to educate themselves and/or seek out resources," Atkinson said.

Larrabee said, "Parents have more influence than they know."

Atkinson said teenagers should know that "any sexual activity could result in an STD."

Unfortunately, she said, teens with an STD may not exhibit any visible signs. Some possible signs of an STD include discharge, burning and irritation in girls and burning with urination and discharge in boys.

Dr. Kevin Kenton, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said the study information demonstrates the significant health risks STDs pose to millions of young women in this county.

"Given that the health effects of STDs for women - from infertility to cervical cancer - are particularly severe, STD screening, vaccination and other preventive strategies for sexually active women are among our highest public health priorities," Kenton said.

Contact the reporter at prhoden@prescottaz.com