Skip to main content

How sexually active young people can stay safe

By Gail Bolan, Special to CNN
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Fri April 26, 2013
Gail Bolan says those who are sexually active should use condoms consistently and correctly.
Gail Bolan says those who are sexually active should use condoms consistently and correctly.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gail Bolan: Each year, we have 20 million new STIs cases, half of them among young people
  • Bolan: The health consequences of untreated STIs can be more serious for young women
  • She says most STIs have no symptoms, so testing is the necessary first step to treatment
  • Bolan: STIs are preventable and most are curable, but we need to raise get the word out

Editor's note: Gail Bolan is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of STD prevention.

(CNN) -- Too few Americans are willing to talk about sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, but we simply cannot afford to avoid these discussions any longer.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released data showing just how common and costly STIs are in the United States, especially for America's youth. Each year, we have 20 million new STI cases, half among teens and young adults ages 15 to 24. Across the nation at any given time, there are more than 110 million total infections, including new and existing infections.

While the number of new infections is roughly equal among young women and young men, the health consequences of untreated STIs can be much more serious for young women, including losing the ability to have children. Every year, about 24,000 women in the United States become infertile because of an STI they probably didn't even know they had, because most infections have no symptoms.

Gail Bolan
Gail Bolan

Left untreated, common STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea can also cause chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy and increase HIV risk. Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is by far the most common STI, representing nearly three-quarters of all STI cases. While the vast majority of HPV infections will not cause serious harm, some infections will persist and can lead to cervical cancer.

Beyond the impact on an individual's health, STIs are also a significant drain on the U.S. health care system. Recent data place the cost of treating STIs at nearly $16 billion annually. Infections among young people account for nearly half of that cost (approximately $7.8 billion ).

Young people are most at risk for several reasons. They are more likely to have multiple sex partners. Young women are biologically more susceptible to STIs, and many young people may be reluctant to disclose their risk behavior to a doctor, because of embarrassment, stigma or concerns about confidentiality.

The good news is that all STIs are preventable and most are curable. But, because most STIs have no symptoms, testing is the necessary first step to treatment.

Philly schools plan to give free condoms
Clinton: Condoms key in AIDS fight

CDC recommends annual chlamydia screening for sexually active women 25 years old and under. Annual gonorrhea screening is also recommended for sexually active women with new or multiple sex partners and women who live in communities with a high burden of the disease.

Sexually active gay and bisexual men should be tested at least annually for HIV, syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea. All Americans should be screened at least once for HIV. In addition, for those who have not previously received the HPV vaccination, CDC recommends vaccination for all teen girls and young women through age 26, as well as teen boys and young men through age 21.

To increase the early diagnosis and treatment of STIs, CDC is reaching out to health care providers and young people at risk throughout the nation with messages about the importance of screening. But many more voices will be required to stop the silent, continuing toll of STIs.

In our communities, we must speak out against the shame and stigma that has too long been associated with STIs. Parents and caregivers need to open the door for frank, honest discussions with their children about STIs and behaviors that can place them at risk. And physicians need to talk to their young patients about STIs, risk behaviors and effective prevention methods.

Sexually active Americans should talk with their doctor about STIs and which tests may be right for them. A little knowledge about STIs and regular screening can go a long way. It's also important for those who are sexually active to talk openly and honestly with partners about STIs, and to use condoms consistently and correctly.

The severe health and economic toll of STIs in America is entirely preventable. With increased awareness, prevention, testing and treatment we can bring this hidden epidemic into the spotlight and safeguard the health of young people while saving the nation billions of dollars in the process.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gail Bolan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT