According to a report released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a trio of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are up at historic levels. Even worse, they are infecting young adults and teens more than ever before.
Combined cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis have risen for five years in a row; the combined number marks the most cases of the diseases since monitoring began in the US.
“Yet not that long ago, gonorrhea rates were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and we were able to point to advances in STD prevention,” Dr. Gail Bolan, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, wrote in the report. “That progress has since unraveled. The number of reported syphilis cases is climbing after being largely on the decline since 1941, and gonorrhea rates are now increasing.
“Many young women continue to have undiagnosed chlamydial infections, putting them at risk for infertility.”
The Risks Are Higher for Young People
Some reasons for the rising STD rates could simply be better reporting of the diseases, because the rates of reported cases were the highest among young adults. Another factor? Less condom use and safer sex practices among teens and young adults. Whatever the reason, these STDs have increased by large percentages since 2014.
- Chlamydia: 19% increase
- Gonorrhea: 63% increase
- Syphilis: 71% increase
- Congenital Syphilis: 185% increase
The most alarming overall stat is that about half of all new STD infections hit teens. Julianna Miner, professor of public health at George Mason University, is concerned.
“The CDC’s new surveillance report raised a couple of red flags for me as someone who works with young people and works in public health,” Miner tells Parentology. “The first is that approximately 50% of new infections are in teens and young adults and the second is that it’s now estimated that 1 in 4 sexually active teen girls has an STD, often something like Chlamydia or HPV, which can easily go undiagnosed because there are frequently no symptoms.”
The overall stat for sexually active teens is now at 28%. While this is lower than in the 1990s, it’s not reassuring in terms of the STD prevalence. While these STDs are commonly thought to be highly treatable, they all carry risks if left untreated. Many STD sufferers, particularly women, are asymptomatic. Untreated diseases like chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory conditions and possible infertility. Gonorrhea is increasingly antibiotic-resistant, and some strains might become untreatable.
Even more alarming is the rise in congenital syphilis. This rare manifestation of the disease occurs when the mother passes the infection on through the placenta to the fetus. It leads to devastating results and has increased every year since 2013.
Unlike Gardasil for HPV prevention, none of these STDs have a vaccine because they aren’t caused by viruses.
Rising STD Rates — How Do You Protect Your Teen?
Part of being a parent is, unfortunately, dealing with uncomfortable realities regarding your kids. Sex falls right into that squirmy category.
“No parent wants to think that their kid is among that 28%. I certainly understand, being the parent of teens myself,” Miner acknowledges. However, as an educator, she also offers some common-sense advice.
“We all need to approach this rationally, using this information to help our kids develop a realistic and evidence-based ability to assess risk when it comes to having sex,” Miner advises. “I honestly believe that every family can be consistent with their values and expectations around teens and sex, and still have brutally honest conversations about what this data is telling us. The facts are pretty stark and kids are often smarter and savvier than we give them credit for.”
The CDC data pretty much backs up whatever your “values” happen to be regarding sex. Plus, this is a health and safety issue, not a moral one, because the STD your teen gets today and leaves untreated, is the STD he spreads to others tomorrow.
“If you feel really strongly that your kids should wait until marriage, this data makes a case for that. If you feel that teenagers are going to be teenagers, then this information gives them some valuable information to guide their choices about having sex and using protection. Getting accurate information on risk and prevention from you, rather than their buddies or social media, is so important. You can provide context, which is critical,” Miner says.
Accurate information means knowing about safer sex, having access to condoms, and getting tested for STDs on a regular basis. Local clinics will often see teens without parents in tow so that they can obtain all these things. Websites, like Planned Parenthood, offer a wide array of information in clear terms. And, there’s always the family doctor.
“I’m a huge proponent of testing and screening for STDs, but in a doctor’s office or clinic. If as a parent, you’re considering a home test for your teen, just go ahead and make a doctor’s appointment for them,” Miner advises. “The physician will speak to your child alone, will likely get a better sense of what’s really going on with them, and has the ability to screen for and, if necessary, treat whatever comes up. Even if it makes you uncomfortable, you should prioritize their health over your feelings about it.”