Wednesday, December 05, 2007
Breaking the silence
There was a time when my best friend, Sarah, was the "sex lady." Out of college, one of her first jobs was as a sex educator. Sarah was passionate about it. Often, she would bring work home and, like many of us, dump it by the front door. On more than one occasion, I walked into Sarah's apartment and was greeted by a poster sized picture of full-blown chlamydia. I guess when you talk about sex all day, you don't think twice about what you leave in the hallway.
I thought about Sarah and her days as the "sex lady" recently when I took my dog, Bella, to our local dog park. I ran into "Apoo's Mom." (At the dog park, humans don't go by their real names. It's kinda like being in the CIA.) Apoo's mom is a pathologist. She works in women's health. She spends most of her days looking at slides. We got to talking about, you guessed it, STDs. Apoo's mom went to medical school in Europe and then came to the United States to do her residency. She says she is shocked by the STD problem we have in the U.S. "Almost every slide I see has trichomoniasis," sighed my dog park friend as we watched our "children" chase squirrels. "It is really alarming."
Just a few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control put out its annual STD report. The CDC estimates that 19 million infections occur each year - that's more infections than the total number of people who live in New York. According to the CDC, the big three STDs are chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. Left untreated, these STDs can lead to infertility and in the case of syphilis, kill you. Nearly half of all infections happen among people ages 15 to 24.
Intrigued, I called Dr. Claire Brindis, professor of pediatrics at the University of California at San Francisco. "It is a silent topic," says Dr. Brindis. She says a number of factors contribute to the high numbers. First, young people tend to have "serial relationships" and when the relationship becomes "serious," the rules change and condoms come off. "The condom becomes a symbol of trust," says Brindis. But over the course of time, if someone has a series of monogamous relationships (and has a fling here or there), their risk and their partner's risk increases.
Dr. Brindis also points out that some groups have higher rates than others. According to the CDC report, the rate of chlamydia among African Americans was more than eight times higher than the rate among whites. Dr. Brindis says scientists are still trying to figure out why. She says it could be that African American teens tend to have sex earlier and that they don't have the access to condoms other groups do. Another possibility is that the health care community is just doing a better job screening for STDs. "We have better and less invasive tests," says Brindis.
She says we need to get creative when it comes to educating young people about STDs. She mentioned a program in San Francisco that sends "safe sex" messages to teen's cell phones.
I am curious to hear what you think. Why do you think the STD rates are so high? What do you think needs to be done to lower it?
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