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Health officials battle high rates of sexually transmitted diseases among local teens

Problem is severe, but not unexpected

By Barbara O’Brien
Updated: 03/25/08 7:46 AM

Dr. Dalinda Condino, of Women and Children’s Hospital, says the statistics are not surprising.

Here’s a sobering thought the next time you’re driving your teenage daughter and her three friends to the mall: Statistically, at least one of them could have a sexually transmitted disease.

A study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 26 percent of American females from 14 to 19 have at least one of the four most commonly transmitted sexually transmitted infections.

Alarming, perhaps, but local health providers say it is not unexpected.

“It doesn’t surprise us,” said Dr. Dalinda Condino, chief of adolescent medicine at Women and Children’s Hospital. “You can only get pregnant once a month, you can get an STD every time you have sex.”

The 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey tested teens for human papillomavirus, chlamydia, herpes simplex virus type 2 and trichomoniasis.

Among the findings:

• The incidence of sexually transmitted disease in African- American girls was 48 percent, compared with 20 percent among white and Mexican- American girls.

• About half of the teens in the survey reported having sex, and their rate of infection was 40 percent.

• The most common sexually transmitted disease was HPV, which can cause cancer and genital warts, followed by chlamydia, trichomoniasis and herpes. Among the teenage girls who had a sexually transmitted disease, 15 percent had more than one.

• Of girls reporting only one partner, 20 percent had at least one sexually transmitted disease, and more than 50 percent of girls with three or more partners were infected.

There has been an increase in the numbers of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the county, Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, Erie County health commissioner, said, although he doesn’t know if that is due to increased identification and reporting of the infection or an increase in cases.

“People need to know it’s a problem out there,” he said.

The survey also found nearly half of African-American girls had a sexually transmitted disease. Condino, from Women and Children’s Hospital, said black teens historically have higher sexually transmitted disease rates than whites.

“They tend to have earlier entrance into sexual activity,” she said.

But the problem is communitywide, said Billittier.

“I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we think that wealthy suburbanite teens aren’t having sex,” he said. “This is a problem that affects all of us.”

The health commissioner said public health educators need to concentrate on preventing infections by advocating abstinence and safe sex practices.

He also advocates routine testing of adolescents for sexually transmitted diseases so there is no stigma attached to the test. Testing won’t prevent the infection, he said, but allows health care providers to catch the infection and treat it to prevent it from spreading.

He also encourages parents to give their daughters the HPV vaccine to prevent the disease.

“I don’t see how we cannot give our children a potentially lifesaving procedure,” Billittier said.

The answer to what is the best way to respond to the alarming survey depends on who is responding. Some say the study shows that abstinence- only programs don’t work, while others say that using condoms is ineffective.

“Abstinence until marriage offers the only 100 percent effective way to erode social problems such as teen pregnancy, STDs and dropout moms,” said Judith Vogtli, program director of ProjecTruth of Catholic Charities of Buffalo.

She said the federal report reflects the same type of information imparted in the Projec- Truth program: that teens contract 3.8 million cases of STDs each year.

“The overarching theme of the report is not all that new — that sexually active teens will contract sexually transmitted infections, just one of the harmful effects of sexual activity among adolescents,” Vogtli said. “It is our responsibility as adults to help our adolescents build their character so they become adults with character and, consequently, better citizens.”

Representatives of Planned Parenthood of Western New York see the report differently. Laura Meyers, chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Western New York, said the survey shows that programs that only advocate abstinence do not work.

“From our perspective at Planned Parenthood, this, I think, highlights the need very acutely for comprehensive sex education, particularly in schools,” she said.

Colleen Shiffhauer, director of patient services for Planned Parenthood, said the agency has routinely tested clients for chlamydia and gonorrhea for several years and has a rapid test for HIV.

“Parents need to realize, maybe my kid is sexually active, and maybe I need to do something about it,” she said.

Condino said she doesn’t like to see health issues become political. She said she and the two other physicians, nurse practitioner and nurse at the adolescent health clinic treat patients, not issues.

“I take the side of my patients to be healthy,” she said.

That means discussion of abstinence, or a return to abstinence, as well as appropriate safety measures such as condoms when the abstinence message is not being received.