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AIDS Watch: For the Girls

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The ABCs of STDs.

KellyMcCann_WPTN
Kelly McCann

By Kelly McCann

On March 11, 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced results of a nationwide study that examined the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases in teenage girls. The study looked at 838 girls between the ages of 14 and 19, testing them for four STDs: Human Papilloma Virus, Chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and genital herpes.

The results were shocking. Twenty-six percent of all these teenage girls participating in the study were infected with an STD. More disturbing, 15 percent of them had more than one!

And it gets even worse. Of the 838 girls in the study, only about half of them reported they were sexually active. So, if we look at just those girls who were sexually active, the percentage of them with at least one STD increases to 40 percent! Examination of the African-American girls in the study showed 50 percent of them were infected with an STD!  

Whoa. Those statistics certainly give one pause. I am troubled by the numbers of young girls engaging in sexual activity. I’m worried about their mental and physical well-being. And I worry all this sex could lead to increases in teenage pregnancies. But I fear the numbers of STD infections within that population may foretell an even more troubling tale of increasing HIV infection rates among girls and young women and their partners.

Having HPV, Chlamydia, trich, and/or herpes increases one’s chances of becoming infected with HIV. That’s because STDs often cause sores and/or inflammation of genital tissues which, along with increased leukocytes or immune cells at the site of the infection, make it easier for HIV to infect and invade your body.  

For example, in a 2007 study by researchers at the University of Washington, it was suggested “that a woman with trichomoniasis is at about 50 percent greater risk for acquiring HIV than a woman without trichomoniasis.” And women with Chlamydia are two to five times more likely to contract HIV if exposed to the virus.  

HIV aside, STDs can cause a variety of other health problems. Let’s review their stats, symptoms, and potential health consequences.

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States with about 20 million Americans currently infected. Another 6.2 million of our citizens become infected each year, and it is estimated that approximately 50 percent of sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV during their lifetime!

Within the HPV family of viruses, there are more than forty of them that can infect genital and anal tissues. Most of those viruses do not cause serious health problems, but some can cause genital or anal warts that may have to be removed. But the good news is, in 90 percent of all HPV cases, the body’s immune system will clear the infection within two years.

However, other HPV types can lead to persistent infection and, potentially, they can cause cancer, especially cervical cancer. Studies conservatively estimate that HPV is the cause of at least 70 percent of the cervical cancers seen in women.  

Due to the insidious presence of HPV in our society and the serious health issues related to certain types of the virus, a vaccine called Gardasil has been developed. This vaccine, consisting of three doses over six months, is recommended for use in girls and young women between the ages of 11 and 26 in order to protect them from the HPV types that cause cervical cancer.   

Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that is transmitted through mucous membrane contact with infected sexual fluids. According to the National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention, Chlamydia is so common in sexually active young women that by the time they reach 30, half of them will have had the disease!

Females often experience no symptoms and therefore go undiagnosed and untreated for long periods of time. That’s a shame, because this infection is easily treated with antibiotics, and long-term infection with Chlamydia can lead to serious medical problems such as a painful arthritic condition, pelvic inflammatory disease, and even infertility.  

Trichomoniasis is caused by a parasite and results in a vaginal discharge and an unpleasant smell. (Trich is the reason for the long-standing myth that women smell like fish. Women don’t smell like fish, trich smells like fish.) While it doesn’t lead to the same sorts of serious health issues we see with other STDs, trich can definitely lead to loneliness!

Genital herpes is a viral infection that causes painful blisters.   Other serious health issues are rare, but genital herpes can cause a potentially fatal infection in newborns.   There is no cure for herpes, but several medications on the market can help eliminate breakouts or reduce their severity.  

Bottom line is this: if you are a sexually active young woman, regardless of the gender of your partners, protect yourself. Use condoms and other barrier methods when you have sex. Get regular check-ups and Pap smears. Consider getting the Gardasil vaccine. And most importantly, find a doctor you can really talk to. It will be your best weapon in the battle to stay healthy in a world of STDs.

For more information, call the CDC at 1-800-CDC-INFO or visit www.cdc.gov/std.

Kelly A. McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston, which recently marked 25 years of service. Details: www.aidshelp.org.

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