Dismay greeted news this week that a quarter of 14 to 19-year old women are infected with at least one of four common sexually transmitted diseases: human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, genital herpes and trichomoniasis. A look behind the numbers is even more staggering. Because only half of the 838 young women in the CDC study were sexually active, that means 40 percent of teenagers who have had sex at all are infected with an STD. Half of all African American teen women were affected by one of the diseases, compared to 20 percent of white teens.
Some feminist writers, including Samhita at Feministing, have asked why the CDC chose to conduct such a high profile teen STD study that focused only on women. After all, in the vast majority of cases, it’s guys who are giving girls these infections, yet young women, once again, are alone at the center of a storm of media hang-wringing about their sexuality. But push deeper into the survey results and there may be a hint as to the CDC’s motivations. As expected, the majority of the infected young women who participated in the survey suffered from one disease, HPV, which affected 18 percent of the teenagers. The second most common disease, chlamydia, affected only 4 percent.
It’s important to publicize these numbers because there is now a vaccination, Gardasil, that protects girls and women from the cervical cancer-causing HPV. Yes, comprehensive sex-education is a huge part of the prevention equation; without information on contraceptives, young men and women can’t make the best decisions about how to protect their health. But if these new numbers shock heretofore reluctant parents into dealing with the reality of teen sexuality and vaccinating their daughters, that would be a great thing for women’s health.
Still, next time around, I hope the CDC focuses on teen guys. Those little buggers and their parents need a wake-up call, too.
Update: A friend of mine working in health policy cautions that it’s possible that Merck, the manufacturer of Gardasil, encouraged the CDC survey, just as they’ve encouraged laws around the country that would have schools get involved with promoting the vaccine or even make vaccination mandatory. So far, there’s no proof of this, although it’s something worth considering. I’ll find out more if I can.
cross-posted at TAPPED