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 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:46 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT