According to a recently released national study, one out of every four teenage girls is infected with at least one sexually-transmitted disease.The study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 26 percent of young women between the ages of 14 and 19--or 3.2 million teenage girls--are infected with at least one of the most common STDs: human papillomavirus (HPV), Chlamydia, herpes or trichomoniasis.
Nikki Kay, spokesperson for the CDC, told UTW that the data is not broken down by state, so there's no way to localize the study's findings.
However, a source closer to home said the findings apply as much to Tulsa as anywhere.
"It's about the same here. Overall, we're maintaining the national average," Janice Sheehan, manager of the Tulsa City-County Health Department's STD clinic, told UTW.
The study was based on an analysis of data from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in which a "nationally representative sample" of 838 adolescent girls were tested.
About half of the girls tested reported ever having had sex, and of those, 40 percent were found to have been infected with an STD.
The study also found that even among girls reporting to have only ever had one sexual partner, one in five had at least one STD.
Girls with three or more partners had a 50 percent prevalence of STD infection.
"Today's data demonstrate the significant health risk STDs pose to millions of young women in this country every year," said Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention.
"Given that the health effects of STDs for women--from infertility to cervical cancer--are particularly severe, STD screening, vaccination and other prevention strategies for sexually active women are among our highest public health priorities," he said.
"High STD infection rates among young women... are clear signs that we must continue developing ways to reach those most at risk," said Dr. John M. Douglas, Jr., director of CDC's Division of STD Prevention.
The manager of the Tulsa STD clinic said that high infection rate among teenage girls is largely the consequence of shifting social norms.
"What is acceptable now wasn't acceptable a few decades ago," Sheehan said.
Increasing social acceptance of sexual activity among young people, combined with decreasing parental involvement, is the reason one out of every four teenaged girls in Tulsa, and the United States, is now infected with an STD, she said.
"The ones that we see in here... about the first thing that we tell them is that they need to talk to their parents about this. We try and encourage them to do that," Sheehan said.
"And also, we give them information and try to help them see that there are different lifestyle changes that they can make," she added.
"Just because they're in here for that particular thing at this time doesn't mean they have to continue with this kind of lifestyle, because it's very detrimental to their health status, as well as psychologically," Sheehan explained.
She elaborated, "Lots of times, decisions are made when you don't really have the information or the experience to be making those decisions."
While Sheehan placed the blame on an increasingly casual public attitude toward teen sexual activity, Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, seemed to come to the opposite conclusion, blaming abstinence programs instead.
"The national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure, and teenage girls are paying the real price," she said in a written statement following the release of the study.
"All too often in our society, teens are bombarded with conflicting messages about sex. They are looking to us for honest and accurate information so they can make responsible decisions," Richards added.
"The statistic that one in four teen girls has an STI (sexually-transmitted infection) may come as a shock to parents, but it underscores what Planned Parenthood and those who work tirelessly to reduce the numbers of both STIs and unintended pregnancies know too well: it is time for everyone who cares about teenagers to start focusing on the commonsense solutions that will help solve this problem," the Planned Parenthood honcho also said.
When asked about Richards' condemnation of abstinence programs, Sheehan responded with a surprised, "Really?"
You hadn't heard that?
"No. Because that's one of the things that we tell them: The only sure way that you have--the only sure, 100 percent way (to avoid STD infection or pregnancy) is abstinence," she answered.
Sheehan emphasizes abstinence as the best course for teenagers, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but because "they just often don't have the information or life experience to make the decisions they make. That's why we give them all the information, all the education we can. We urge them to talk to their parents when we can."
Of course, while Sheehan is a vocal advocate for abstinence, she doesn't bank on getting through to everyone.
"Of course, if they're going to engage in those kinds of behaviors, we try to give them the information and tell them what the ramifications may be and those kinds of things," she said.
"You can't change someone's behavior. All you can do is give someone the information and the education and be supportive, and then they have to be the one to choose to have a different lifestyle," Sheehan added.
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