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 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT