Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Sexually transmitted diseases have become so pervasive among the nation’s youth that one out of every two sexually active young people can expect to become infected by age 25, a new report says.

Young women are more at risk than young men because the infections can “silently” hide in the female reproductive tract, according to the study by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sexually active teens ages 15 to 19 have the highest STD rates of any age group, and nearly half of the 18.9 million new STD cases in 2000 were among youths ages 15 to 24, the study says.

The 14 public health experts who prepared the report said the best ways to avoid infection are to abstain from sex or remain in a monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner.

For youths who engage in sexual relations with many partners, reducing the number of partners and “correct and consistent use of a male latex condom” can reduce the risk of STD, writes Joan Cates, a researcher at the University of North Carolina and principal investigator of the report, “Our Voices, Our Lives, Our Futures: Youth and Sexually Transmitted Diseases.”

The university’s report is based on two new studies published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

One study about the prevalence of STD estimates the number of new cases has risen from 15 million a year in 1996 to 18.9 million a year in 2000.

Some 9.1 million of the new infections in 2000 occurred in those 15 to 24, and three diseases — human papillomavirus (HPV), trichomoniasis and chlamydia — accounted for 88 percent of the new infections, write Hillard Weinstock, Stuart Berman and Willard Cates Jr.

Mr. Weinstock and Mr. Berman are officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of STD Prevention and Mr. Cates is a top official for Family Health International in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

The second study, by economists and public health researchers, estimates that the 9.1 million new STD cases in youths will have direct medical costs of $6.5 billion.

Incurable viral infections, such as genital herpes, HIV, hepatitis B and HPV, accounted for 94 percent of the costs, while other curable ones, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and trichomoniasis accounted for the remaining costs.

“HIV and HPV were by far the most costly STDs,” accounting for 90 percent of the total burden, the researchers said.

The rise of STD among young people contrasts the steady declines in teen birth and pregnancy rates in the 1990s.

One explanation is that more young women are using efficient birth-control products, which prevent pregnancy but do not offer protection against STD.

Evidence also points to the leveling off of teen condom use in the late 1990s, opening the door to an increase in STD, said Deborah Arrindell, senior director of health policy at the American Social Health Association.

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