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One in 4 Teen Girls Has a Sexually Transmitted Disease

TUESDAY March 11, 2008 -- More than 3 million teenaged girls have at least one sexually transmitted disease (STD), a new government study suggests.

The most severely affected are African-American teens. In fact, 48 percent of African-American teenaged girls have an STD, compared with 20 percent of white teenaged girls.

"What we found is alarming," Dr. Sara Forhan, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during a teleconference Tuesday. "One in four female adolescents in the U.S. has at least one of the four most common STDs that affects women."

"These numbers translate into 3.2 million young women nationwide who are infected with an STD," Forhan said. "This means that far too many young women are at risk of the serious health effects of untreated STDs, including infertility and cervical cancer."

These common STDs include human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, herpes simplex virus and trichomoniasis, Forhan said.

Forhan announced the results as part of the CDC's 2008 National STD Prevention Conference, in Chicago.

"These findings are really giving us a lot of pause about how we provide care to adolescent girls who are sexually active," said Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City and chairperson of the Executive Committee of the Section of Adolescent Health of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "The numbers are really astonishing."

Forhan noted that most of the burden of STDs falls on young African-American women. "Among African-American teenagers, about one in two were affected compared to one in five white teens," she said.

In terms of the racial disparity, "it's what we've always seen, which is very unfortunate," Alderman said.

In the study, Forhan's team collected data on 838 girls aged 14 to 19 who took part in the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The study did not include syphilis, gonorrhea or HIV, as earlier studies found very low prevalence of these diseases in this age group.

HPV and chlamydia are the most common STDs found among teenage girls, Forhan said. "Almost one in five overall had a strain of HPV associated with cervical cancer or genital warts," she said.

"We need to be screening adolescent girls who are sexually active and providing them with HPV vaccine," Alderman said. "The recommendations are to screen sexually active girls, but many girls don't disclose to their health-care provider that they are sexually active, even when asked," she said.

As for chlamydia, 4 percent of teenaged girls had this STD, Forhan said. "The majority of chlamydia infections do not have symptoms. If left untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which leaves these young women at risk for atopic pregnancy, chronic pelvic pain or infertility," she said.

In addition, the study found that 2.9 percent of young women had trichomoniasis, and 2 percent were infected with genital herpes, Forhan said.

According to Forhan, about 50 percent of the teens reported having sex, and the prevalence of STDs in this group was 40 percent. "Even for young women with only one reported lifetime sexual partner, one in five had an STD," she noted.

"If you choose to be sexually active, you need to protect yourself and be screened for these infections," Alderman said. "And all girls between the ages of 11 and 26 should get vaccinated for HPV."

Among women with an STD, 15 percent had more than one infection, Forhan added.

"These data provide a clearest picture to date of the overall burden of STDs in adolescent women in the United States," Forhan said. "The study also underscores the importance of addressing racial disparities in STD rates among young women."

Race itself is not a risk factor for STDs, Forhan said. However, factors such as limited access to health care, poverty, community prevalence of STDs, and misperceptions about individual risk are some of the reasons that STD rates are particularly high among African-Americans, she said.

More information

For more on STDs, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Posted: March 2008


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