Updated April 10, 2008 – It's time to make some noise about sexually transmitted diseases and infections. That's because millions of Americans, particularly African American teens, are walking around with two of the most common sexually transmitted diseases and don't know it.
More than 2 million Americans have chlamydia and 250,000 more have gonorrhea, say government scientists. And the diseases are most prevalent among young people, particularly African Americans. Those were the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, from 1999 to 2002, studied 6,632 people between the ages of 14 and 39.
Overall, more than 9 million young adults, aged 15 to 24 years old contracted some form of a sexually transmitted disease in 2000, according to the CDC's number crunchers.
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But, at least one in four teenage girl nationwide – more than 3 million teens – has a sexually transmitted disease. The most common virus found in girls 14 to 19 years old was human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer.
The numbers are even more daunting for Black females, says a startling new first-of-its kind study.
Black girls had the highest rate of STDs, as nearly half the Blacks studied had at least one STD. That is compared to 20 percent among both Whites and Mexican-American teens, the study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found.
Both chlamydia and gonorrhea still pose significant health risks in the United States and … disparities exist, especially with regard to the high rate of gonorrhea among Whites and Blacks, says epidemiologist Dr. S. Deblina Datta, of the study her team published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
But Chlamydia infections among African Americans were roughly four times higher than for Whites (6.4 percent vs. 1.5 percent) and the disparity was even higher for gonorrhea, the study found.
The differences in the sexual disease numbers has existed for 20 years because Blacks tend to be poorer and have less access to health care, said Robert Cook, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida .
But the problem with the high rate of STDs, the experts say, is that they signal that a large number of teens are having unprotected sex. Additionally, the STDS they are contracting can lead to sterility, cancer or even AIDS.
Most STDs have no symptoms
To most, the numbers seems "overwhelming because you're talking about nearly half of the sexually experienced teens at any one time having evidence of an STD," Dr. Margaret Blythe, an adolescent medicine specialist at Indiana University School of Medicine and head of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on adolescence, told The Associated Press.
While symptoms of chlamydia can include painful urination, abdominal pain and an unusual discharge from the vagina or penis, many people with chlamydia or gonorrhea have no symptoms at all, health experts say.
In women, untreated chlamydia or gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility and pregnancy complications such as low-birth-weight babies, premature birth and serious infections in newborns. Recent studies also show some sperm damage in men who get chlamydia.
To halt the spread of the disease, and get treatment to those who don’t know they have it, the Centers for Disease Control recommends annual chlamydia screenings for all sexually active women under 26, and annual screenings for older women with risk factors for the sexually transmitted diseases, such as a new sex partner or multiple partners.
"If screening recommendations are properly applied, they will be effective, but we know that this isn't happening consistently," Dr. Datta says. "This needs to be a focus of preventiion."
But the quiet and mostly unnoticed teen STDs crisis also points to the need for new measures to help teens protect themselves, health experts say. "High STD rates among young women, particularly African-American young women, are clear signs that we must continue developing ways to reach those most at risk," Douglas said.
For more on this silent threat, check out the STDs premer on BlackDoctor.org.
If you're wondering how to protect yourself, here are 10 more things you should know about STDs.