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 2:12 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
updated 5:24 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
updated 7:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 7:00 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
updated 4:31 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT