STDs Remain a Challenge for High School Kids

STD, pregnancy prevention and sex ed stalls in U.S. schools — CDC. April is the cruelest month, indeed. That is, in terms of sex education. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tagged April as Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) Awareness month in a bid to call attention to the impact of STDs and to promote STD testing across the country.

But on this month, a CDC study found that U.S. middle and high schools have not made significant advances in sex education in the last five years — despite the fact that teenagers and young adults are the very people who are particularly vulnerable to STDs.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections that you can get from having sex with someone who has the infection. Caused by bacteria, parasites and viruses, there are more than 20 types of STDs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, syphilis, trichomoniasis and human papillomavirus (HPV), and the human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or HIV/AIDS.

The last two can be deadly — HPV causes cervical and anal cancer, while HIV/AIDS has no cure and although new medicines can help people live with the disease for many years, it typically ends in death. This is why the CDC’s warning for STD month is: “STDs primarily affect young people, but the health consequences can last a lifetime.”

Right now, young people between 15 and 24 years old account for nearly half of all STD cases — and healthcare providers and teachers can help slash the number of cases by teaching young people about sexual health and STD prevention.

But the researchers at the CDC found that the country’s schools aren’t moving forward when it comes to teaching middle and high school students about how to protect themselves from STDs and HIV, as well as how to prevent pregnancies.

In fact, in some places, the researchers say, the teaching is actually regressing. Their findings were published in the April 6 issue of the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

With nearly half of all high school students sexually active, the CDC researchers maintain that it’s necessary to make sex-ed a part of education again.

“Little progress has been made in the proportion of middle and high schools that offer education on the prevention of HIV, many STDs, and pregnancy,” Laura Kann, study coauthor and a CDC researcher, tells WebMD. “We are heading in the wrong direction.”

For the report, the CDC investigators:
• Analyzed data from public middle and high schools in 45 states collected as part of the School Health Profiles, a biennial survey that measures school health practices. The data used was from the survey conducted between 2008 and 2010.
• Looked at the percentage of middle schools and high schools in each of the 45 states that teach specific sex-ed topics — HIV, STDs and pregnancy prevention — in a course that students are required to take.
• Recognize that their analysis is limited in that it relies only on public schools (no private schools in the survey) and reports from school principals.

The investigators found that between 2008 and 2010:
• None of the states marked an increase in the number of schools offering sex education in a required course for middle school (6th, 7th and 8th grade) students.
• 11 states even reported a drop in the percentage of schools offering sex education in a required course for middle school students.
• Among high schools (grades 9-12), one state experienced a drop in the percentage of schools teaching the sex-ed topics, while two states saw increases in the percentage over the two-year period.

Looking specifically at teaching high school students about using condoms, Kann and her team found that the percentage of schools teaching condom use:
• dropped in eight states.
• increased in only three states.

“Secondary schools can increase efforts to teach all age-appropriate HIV, other STD, and pregnancy prevention topics to help reduce risk behaviors among students,” Kann and her authors write in their report.

“From the early 1990s until now, we were seeing a decline in the number of high school students who were sexually active,” says Kann. But “the decline has leveled off and we are concerned that the rate could go back up.”

Some states do better than others
What’s more alarming, according to the investigators, is the disparity between what is taught in different states. For example, correct condom usage was taught in 26.8 percent of public high schools in Utah in 2010, compared to 96.6 percent of Delaware high schools.

For the topic of “how HIV and other STDs are transmitted:
• More than 90 percent of schools in Hawaii, Indiana, Nevada, New York and Rhode Island reported teaching the topic in 2010.
• Less than 70 percent of schools in Alaska (43 percent), Arizona (33 percent), Mississippi (56 percent), Nebraska (68 percent), Oklahoma (65 percent), South Dakota (67 percent) and Tennessee (65 percent) reported doing so.

Writing in an article accompanying the study, the researchers stress that educating children before they become sexually active is could help curb the infection rate of HIV and STDs.

“Twenty percent of persons 18-29 years old believe incorrectly that a person can become infected with HIV by sharing a drinking glass, or are unsure of whether this statement is true or false,” the researchers recount. “HIV prevention can also address misperceptions about how HIV is transmitted,” they point out.

While some parents may object to sexual education being taught in schools, schools are in the perfect position to do so, the researchers explain. “Families, the media, and community organizations — including faith-based organizations — can play a role in providing HIV, other STD, and pregnancy prevention education,” they say. “However, schools are in a unique position … because almost all school-aged youths in the United States attend school.”

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are currently only two kinds of sexual education taught in the U.S.
• The first — abstinence plus — teaches students that refraining from sex is a good choice, but also teaches about contraception.
• The second — abstinence-only — teaches students that sex should wait until marriage and doesn’t provide information about contraception.

According to a Kaiser study, 34 percent of U.S. schools teach abstinence-only education — even when research shows that this isn’t effective in preventing pregnancy or protecting teenagers from STDs and HIV.

Together with media giant MTV, Kaiser has launched the fourth annual GYT: Get Yourself Tested for STD campaign that uses a variety of strategies to get college kids to have themselves tested for STDs at 5,000 health centers across the U.S.

Celebrities with STDs identified to raise awareness
Meanwhile, a group called STD Carriers Disease Control and Prevention Services compiled and published a report online identifying 100 celebrities who had received positive STD tests at some time in their lives.

The report was made to raise awareness of the importance of preventing STDs, and to show that fame and money don’t influence a person’s chances of contracting an infection — a person who fails to practice safe sex is likely to experience sexual health problems.

By showing that even famous people can get STDs, the group hopes to get more people to understand the importance of STD testing and of practicing safer sex — the most effective ways of stopping the spread of STDs — some of which, like HIV and hepatitis C — are deadly.

The report listed 29 musicians, 14 adult film actors, 13 athletes, 10 authors, nine actresses, eight actors, six journalists, six politicians, three activists and two reality TV stars. Most of the individuals identified had tested positive for HIV or AIDS. Others had hepatitis C, herpes simplex virus 2, human papillomavirus or genital warts. It’s available here:

Health Risks of Child or Teen Pregnancy
Celebrities With Herpes
Why Women Should Test for Chlamydia