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STDs:
A Life-and-Death Issue

by Susan Hines-Brigger

If ever a motto was right on, —It won—t happen to me— seems just right for teens. Car wrecks? Not me. Pregnancy? Nope. Sexually transmitted disease (STD)? No way.

But guess what? Those things do happen to teens, and in the case of sexually transmitted diseases, happen at an alarming rate. Every year, nearly four million teens become infected with STDs, also known as STIs or sexually transmitted infections.

Think of it this way. Do you know four friends who are sexually active? If so, statistics say that one of them has a sexually transmitted disease. The scarier fact is that this friend may not even be aware of it.

According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), nearly two thirds of people with the top two reported STDs—chlamydia and gonorrhea—do not seek treatment because they have no symptoms. The consequences, however, are serious and can even be deadly.

STDs are a very real issue for teens who choose to be sexually active. That is why this issue of Youth Update will be addressing STDs: how they can change your life and the importance of respecting your own body and other peoples— through your choices and actions. I—ll also review—and add to—the benefits of abstinence.

If you—ve made the decision to be abstinent yourself, you may be wondering why you should even continue reading. First of all, congratulations on making a very wise and healthy decision. Know that you are not alone. Many people—including some famous people such as singer Mandy Moore—have chosen abstinence.

Unfortunately, chances are you know someone who has decided to be sexually active. For that reason, you need to be well informed on the dangers of STDs so that you can be a voice of reason and help your friends make intelligent and safe choices when it comes to their lives. You should also let your friends know that you are there for them should they need your help or support.

Just the Facts

First off, let—s take a look at the facts surrounding teens and STDs. Many of you may have learned about STDs in health class, from your parents, friends, health-care professionals, brochures or magazine articles. But how much of that information did you retain for future reference?

Answer the following True or False questions and test your knowledge. (Hint: All the answers can be found in this Youth Update.)

1. T or F Herpes is curable.

2. T or F Abstinence is the only 100-percent way to prevent
pregnancy and STDs.

3. T or F STDs can cause certain varieties of cancer and infertility.

4. T or F If a person has an STD he/she will have symptoms.

5. T or F You can contract an STD through oral sex.

(Answers can be found at the end of this Youth Update.)

So, how did you do? Even if you got all the answers right, the facts still show that, for one reason or another, teens continue to engage in unhealthy and risky sexual behavior. Combine that with the fact that most teens don—t think of STDs as something they have to worry about at their age, and you have a life-altering and potentially deadly situation.

STD is a broad term for the more than 25 sexually transmitted diseases that are spread through sexual contact. The most common of these are AIDS, chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis and genital warts.

Chlamydia is the most common STD, with an estimated three million new cases diagnosed every year. If caught early, it can be treated with antibiotics. If not, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can in turn lead to infertility.

Some of the symptoms—if there are any—that may indicate an STD are genital sores, pain and itching. In men, symptoms can also include penile discharge, pain during urination, and testicular swelling/pain.

I—m sure you—ve all heard of HIV/AIDS, but you should know that some other STDs can also have serious consequences. For instance, syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia can result in long-term problems such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which can lead to sterility and chronic pelvic pain. And human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes genital warts, has been linked to the development of cervical cancer.

Some STDs are curable, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. They will not, however, go away by themselves. You need to seek treatment from a doctor.

Other STDs, such as HIV, HPV, herpes and hepatitis B, are not curable. They are, however, treatable, so it is very important that you seek medical attention if you have or suspect you may have any of these diseases.

You should also know that there is no 100-percent accurate test for STDs.

Stephanie (name changed for privacy) thought—and still thinks—that she covered all her bases when it came to sex while she was dating Jim. They dated for about two years while in high school, and she says they never had sex, which she defines as intercourse. They did, however, engage in oral sex.

—Our main concern was not getting pregnant,— Stephanie says. They didn—t worry too much about STDs, she says. —We discussed it briefly once or twice, but we weren—t too concerned. Jim told me he hadn—t been with anyone else and I knew I hadn—t.—

Stephanie is now in another relationship and says she isn—t worried about passing anything on to her current boyfriend, even though she is not 100-percent certain that she has no STDs. She said she has no plans to get tested for STDs based on what Jim told her when they were dating and the fact that she has no symptoms.

Is —Safe Sex— Really All That Safe?

You—ve heard the term —safe sex.— Unfortunately, —safe sex— is a very broad term and, depending on your interpretation, can provide a false sense of security.

What does that term mean to you? Does it mean using condoms or not having sexual intercourse? For many people, —safe sex— means taking steps to prevent pregnancy and STDs.

So let—s see if that interpretation can stand up against the facts. Condoms may protect against the spread of certain STDs, but they are virtually useless against HPV, the most common viral STD. Does that sound —safe— to you?

And what about oral sex? Obviously you can—t get pregnant. In fact, when I asked one teen if she thought oral sex was considered sex, she said no. Her reasoning was that it—s not intercourse and you can—t get pregnant from it.

Some articles about teen sexuality have attributed this belief to former President Bill Clinton—s assertion that he had not had sex with Monica Lewinsky. Though they had engaged in oral sex, they did not have intercourse.

But guess what? You can contract STDs through oral sex.

Faces Behind the Grim Statistics

Knowledge is just one part of the equation toward preventing STDs. What happens when you are confronted with the real-life decision of whether or not to engage in sexual activity and put yourself in danger when it comes to STDs?

It would be very easy to fill this Youth Update with statistic after statistic—such as STDs can cause a variety of cancers, infertility, ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages—in order to demonstrate the impact STDs are having on teens. But facts are easily forgotten, just like dates in history, math equations and the million other bits of information that inundate you on a daily basis.

The true proof of what STDs are doing to teenagers, however, is in the stories of those affected. Behind each statistic there is a name, a face, a story. That is where the statistics come to life.

For Kelly Chambers, that was all too true. Kelly contracted the HIV virus from having unprotected sex—just once. Unaware that she had been infected, Kelly also unknowingly passed the disease on to her baby, Crystal, who died when she was just a year old. Kelly has now died as well.

Kelly—s story is featured in the video Why Abstinence? The Price Tag of Casual Sex. The video is part of an abstinence-based educational program developed by Healthy Visions of Cincinnati, Ohio, in conjunction with other agencies.

Carol Adlard, director of Healthy Visions, who made the video, said she discovered most of the educational materials concerning teen pregnancy, STDs and abstinence were lacking something.

—Everything I found was so boring for teens to listen to. Videos and such were usually done by adults who were talking at the students—not with them. They mostly rattled off some statistics about sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy,— Adlard said in a published interview.

She wanted the video to resonate with teens and their experiences, so she turned to her daughter, Tara, a sophomore at St. Ursula Academy in Cincinnati, Ohio, for help developing the video and the accompanying curriculum.

Tara says she decided to help because she thought the message —would be more credible to teenagers if they knew a teenager worked on it and believed in it.— She also had seen —the life-changing impact her [mother's] other programs had on teens; I wanted to help out with that.—

Countering Statistics With Education

Have you ever thought you knew pretty much everything about a certain subject, only to find out that there was more you still had to learn?

That—s exactly what Tara Adlard ran into during her research on STDs. She says that, even though she had learned about STDs and HIV/AIDS in health class and through her mom—s business, she discovered there were still a lot of things she didn—t know.

—I didn—t realize so many STDs can go undetected because there may be no symptoms. And those infections can cause sterility and even cancer if undetected [and untreated].— She says she found those facts —terrifying.—

Michael also learned a lot about STDs in health class at school and feels he has a pretty good knowledge of the risks. He also knows, however, that some of his friends have been infected with STDs.

Michael says he would have no problem asking a girl if she knew whether she had an STD. —I would ask because it affects my personal safety,— he says, adding that if she didn—t know, he would go with her to get tested. If she did have an STD, though, he says it wouldn—t mean the relationship would have to end. —A relationship is much more than just sex,— he points out.

What Does the Church Say?

When it comes to STDs, it—s probably not too hard to figure out what the Church has to say. The Church teaches that engaging in sex before marriage is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. The Church states clearly that it is morally wrong, seriously sinful. Fornication is the name it gives to sex between unmarried persons. That sounds ominous and it is. The Church wants you to make positive choices about your body, your health and your future. Putting yourself in danger of contracting an STD contradicts those goals.

You may be thinking that all these statistics and stories are meant to scare you about the reality of STDs. Yes and no.

I—m giving you these statistics because I want you to be aware of the dangers of STDs. Providing you with knowledge about them gives you more power when making decisions about your health—mentally and physically. The prospect of living with an STD—or dying from one—is scary, and better you realize that sooner rather than later.

Do you know someone who is very health conscious? Sometimes people like that will refer to their bodies as temples. They watch how they treat their bodies, what foods and beverages they consume. They work very hard to take care of themselves.

That view is similar to how the Church wants you to view your body when it comes to sexuality. Your body, your health, your sexuality are all gifts from God. Because of that, you should avoid situations that put you in danger of harm or don—t treat your body with respect.

The best way to achieve that goal is to make the decision to stay abstinent. Because when all is said and done, abstinence is the only 100-percent effective method to prevent STDs.

If you have been or are sexually active, it—s never too late to start caring for your health and the gifts you have been given when it comes to your sexuality. You may want to see a doctor to determine whether you have contracted an STD. (Remember, many people who have been infected have no symptoms.)

Or you can call the National STD Hotline (see box). Most importantly, make a decision to begin honoring yourself and your sexuality by choosing abstinence and not putting yourself in danger.

The bottom line, says Tara Adlard, is: —STDs are very real. They are very common. Staying abstinent,— she believes, —is the only way to stay away from the risks.—

So now you know the facts, the risks and even where the Church would weigh in on STDs. Ultimately, the decision of whether you will be sexually active and put yourself in danger of contracting an STD is up to you.

Hopefully, though, after considering all the risks, you—ll see that abstinence is really the only smart choice to make. In fact, it—s a decision that could save your life.

[Answers to quiz found in text: 1) F 2) T 3) T 4) F 5) T]

Susan Hines-Brigger is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger, a national family magazine, and a mother of two.

Ethan Fuqua (17), Ashley Kohl (15), Lauren M. Miller (14) and James Sand (18), of Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in Cincinnati, Ohio, met with this Youth Update's author and editor to review the issue and ask questions. They were open, honest, helpful and encouraging.

Q.

I know a doctor has to inform a legal guardian if a girl is pregnant. Is this true for STDs?

A.

According to current state and federal laws, minors may seek treatment for STDs without parental notification. These laws are constantly being challenged, however, so you may want to contact your doctor and ask him or her whether confidential testing or treatment is available. Whatever you learn, get medical help.

Q.

If a woman has an STD and becomes pregnant, can it affect the baby?

A.

As the story of Kelly Chambers illustrates, the answer is a definite yes. Kelly passed on the HIV virus to her baby, who eventually died. Because many STDs have no symptoms and the female anatomy often masks any early symptoms of an STD, women may not realize they have an STD when they become pregnant. STD infection during a pregnancy can cause complications and can also lead to illness in newborns. In some cases, women may not be able to have children at all, because STDs can cause infertility.

Q.

Sometimes it seems that the assumption is made that everyone is having sex. Why are teens afraid to counter that assumption if they're not sexually active?

A.

The bad thing about assumptions is that they can be wrong, wrong, wrong. The teenage years are not the easiest time to assert your individual beliefs. There's a certain sense of safety in just going along with what you believe is the status quo—whether it's accurate or not. That's how assumptions get made. Regardless of what you think everyone else is doing, though, please do not let that affect your own personal decisions. The choice of whether to become sexually active is a serious moral—and life-altering—decision that should not be taken lightly.

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