Saturday, March 15, 2008

Another Poor, Alarmist, Study on Teen Sex and STDs

The tradition of alarmist misleading media reports on youth STD rates continues, this time with a fderal study suggesting that 1 in 4 teens has an STD. Before panicking, we should really delve into the parameters in that report, because as usual, they leave much to be desired.

At its most basic, consider that the study group here was girls aged 14-19. Now, why on earth would anyone do a sample of such an age group? Do we expect the sexual activity of 14 year olds to be anything like that of 19-year-olds? The two are worlds apart sociologically. Yet they are clumped together for seemingly no reason except that all those ages have “teen” in them. Further, there is no accounting for the older girls who are married. So right away we have to wonder just how much there is to worry about with our teenage children, ie, those still undeveloped, and living at home.

But the real killer comes when they break down the 26%:

The teens were tested for four infections: human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer and affected 18 percent of girls studied; chlamydia, which affected 4 percent; trichomoniasis, 2.5 percent; and genital herpes, 2 percent.

It is worth noting that chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics, as can trichomoniasis, and can exist without symptoms. Herpes can, with medication, be kept to a level of near irrelevance. People so afflicted can go years without an outbreak. And what about HPV, the malady that accounts for 2/3 of the STDS reported?

HPV, the cancer-causing virus, can also cause genital warts but often has no symptoms. A vaccine targeting several HPV strains recently became available, but Douglas said it probably hasn't yet had much impact on HPV prevalence rates in teen girls.

Now no STD is a laughing matter, but we should also be aware of exactly what the STD costs those it infects so we can evaluate information about infection rates properly. Many of us are trained years ago in the era where “STDS” meant AIDS and a lifetime of herpes lesions can forget that the impact of those diseases on the average infected person dwarfs that of those noted above. It’s not your fathers’ herpes any more. While we’d rather no children contract STDs, the fact that so many can be cured, or exist without symptoms, cannot be ignored.

But obviously there is a problem of sex education, and the recent push for abstinence-only programs came under fire:

Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said the study shows that "the national policy of promoting abstinence-only programs is a $1.5 billion failure, and teenage girls are paying the real price." Similar claims were made last year when the government announced the teen birth rate rose between 2005 and 2006, the first increase in 15 years.

And yet those in the faith-based community still insist abstinence-only works. They also have a bad habit of misrepresenting the positions of those who think a more comprehensive program is in order by portraying them as being against abstinence. Here is a typical example of what those views really are:

"To talk about abstinence is not a bad thing," but teen girls — and boys too — need to be informed about how to protect themselves if they do have sex, [said Dr. Elizabeth Alderman, an adolescent medicine specialist at Montefiore Medical Center's Children's Hospital in New York.]

Of course we’d all prefer that children not have sex until they are mature enough to make responsible decisions about it. But the strategy of burying our heads in the sand pretending responsible guidance ends there. We also must be prepared to make the situation as safe as possible even if they do decide to be sexually active. The idea that giving teens information about birth control and other aspects of their sexuality is going to make them want to have sex is absurd. The desire is there regardless of what we say. All we can do is help them direct those desires in safe, productive directions.

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