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The Real Cause for STDs Climbing in the U.S.

The number of people in the U.S. with an STD hit a high in October. Data showed that there were increases in all nationally reported STDs for a consecutive second year. There were 1.5 million reported cases of chlamydia, the highest number ever reported to the government, with people between ages 15 and 24 accounting for the largest number of  STD infections.

How did this happen?

Only 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate both sex education and HIV education. Sex education classes often focus largely on preventing unintended pregnancies, with much less focus on preventing infections, which could explain why young people today are not as concerned about STDs as previous generations. They were not exposed to the emergence and spread of HIV, plus, advancements in medication and treatments of STDs and HIV may also offer a sense of security.

Gonorrhea Resistant to Medications

“There’s a lack of fear,” says Dr. John Steever, an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York’s Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. “But that doesn’t mean that an STD no longer can cause severe health complications,” adds Steever. “That lack of forward-thinking is what we are running up against.” Although great progress has been made with HIV, not every STD can be treated with a simple round of medication. Some strains of gonorrhea, for instance, are already showing resistance to the antibiotics used to treat it. Since 2006, the number of medications available to treat it have gone from five to one. This may coincide with youth ages 15 to 24 accounting for half of all gonorrhea cases reported in the U.S. in 2015.

A Focus on Heterosexual Sex Only

Another factor contributing to the rise in teen STDs is the fact that many classes focus almost exclusively on heterosexual sex. “Sex education has to be relevant to the kids you are seeing,” says Dr. Steever. “To drone on about condoms for pregnancy prevention can fall on deaf ears for LGBTQ communities. We need sex education that is appropriate for the audience it is trying to reach.”

A Rise in STD Screening

It’s also possible that the increase in STD screening has led to more reported cases. It wasn’t until 2000 that all 50 states and the District of Columbia required reporting of chlamydia, says Dr. Eloisa Llata, a medical epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s division of STD prevention.

The CDC now recommends that women under 25 who have a new partner or are sexually active should be screened yearly for chlamydia and gonorrhea. All results are registered nationally. For sexually active gay and bisexual men, the CDC advises an annual test for syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV. However, a May 2016 report found 42% of 3,953 adolescents and young adults who had sex and did not get tested had assumed they were not at risk for an infection.

Talking about STDs and how to prevent them at home and at school can help. “Everyone should talk more — and more openly — about STDs in order to raise awareness and reduce stigma,” says Llata.

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