On March 11, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the news that one in four girls between the ages of 14 and 19 have at least one sexually transmitted infection (STI). If their study, which is based on a nationally representative sample of more than 800 teen girls, speaks for the entire country, it is estimated that 3.2 million teenage girls in the United States are infected.
These girls are not having sex alone. You can do the math yourself. If this many girls are infected, imagine how many boys have the same diseases -- many of them without even knowing it. And then imagine the total number of parents who are clueless about all this, let alone about the fact that their children are already having sex. Let's be clear: "Having sex" means any type of sexual contact. Ever since the Monica Lewinsky ordeal, some people seem to think that only vaginal intercourse counts as sex.
Here's a summary of the key findings of the CDC study:
• The CDC study was carried out between 2003 and 2004 and involved 838 teen girls who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
• Study participants were tested for the following STIs: human papilloma virus (HPV), chlamydia, genital herpes, and trichomoniasis.
• 48 percent of black, 20 percent of white, and 20 percent of Mexican-American teenage girls have at least one STI.
• Most common are HPV (18 percent) and chlamydia (4 percent), followed by trichomoniasis (3 percent) and genital herpes (2 percent).
• Overall, approximately half of the teens reported having had sex. Of these, 40 percent had at least one STI.
If you missed this news flash, you are not alone. At the time, the media, instead of launching a wake-up call to protect teen health, was occupied with covering the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. After all, a juicy sex scandal is so much more captivating than dry public health statistics, as shocking as they are.
The study results were met with mixed reactions. My teenage daughter summed it up in two words: "That sucks." Countless parents, I am sure, found these statistics eye-opening. Others, including myself, were really not that surprised. How could it be any different? After all, for years most American teenagers have not been getting the necessary information and resources they need to make informed and healthy choices for themselves.
What is going on? How is it possible that this many teens are infected with STIs? How come they are not waiting to have sex? And how come those who do have sex don't protect themselves against STIs -- and pregnancy, for that matter?
I look at the situation from several different angles: one, as a sexual health professional who provides sexuality education to fourth, fifth and sixth graders (and their parents) in a private school; two, as a parent myself; and three, as someone who spent the first three decades of my life in Europe, where teen pregnancy and STI rates are drastically lower than in America.
In fact, let's start by taking a quick look at how European teenagers compare to American teens when it comes to STI and pregnancy rates:
In the U.S., the teen pregnancy rate is:
9 times higher than in the Netherlands
4 times higher than in France
5 times higher than in Germany
In the U.S., the teen birth rate is:
11 times higher than in the Netherlands
5 times higher than in France
4 times higher than in Germany
In the U.S., the teen abortion rate is:
8 times higher than in Germany
7 times higher than in the Netherlands
3 times higher than in France
In the U.S., the teen chlamydia rate is:
20 times higher than in France
(Data are not available for Germany and the Netherlands)
In the U.S., the teen gonorrhea rate is:
74 times higher than in the Netherlands and France
66 times higher than in the former West Germany
38 times higher than in the former East Germany
In the U.S., the teen syphilis rate is:
6 times higher than in the Netherlands
5 times higher than in the former West Germany
3 times higher than in the former East Germany
(Source: Advocates for Youth)
Why these differences, you might wonder? For one, European teens receive comprehensive sex education at school. "Comprehensive" means that their programs teach them about various methods to protect themselves against pregnancy and STIs. Abstinence from sex is one of the methods taught, but it is not the only one. European teens also learn about condoms and other types of birth control. Armed with this knowledge, they are able to make the right choice to use safer sex methods once they decide to become sexually active.
In comparison, for more than a decade, the U.S. government has focused its efforts on promoting abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, investing more than $1 billion so far. There is no federal government funding for comprehensive sex education in the United States. To date, 17 states have rejected federal government money for AOUM sex education programs. Instead, these states are now teaching or planning to teach comprehensive sex education in which abstinence is not the only option.