Feb. 25, 2004 -- One out of every two new sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) diagnosed each year are among young people aged 15-24, according to new research that for the first time estimates the toll STDs have on American youth.
Researchers say that although young people between the ages of 15 and 24 represent about 25% of the sexually experienced population, the prevalence of STDs among this group has not been examined thoroughly until now.
The study, conducted by researchers at the CDC, found that of the approximately 18.9 million new cases of STDs in 2000, nearly half of them were diagnosed among people in this age group.
A related CDC report estimates that direct medical costs associated with a lifetime of treating cases of STD infection diagnosed in young people in 2000 could reach $6.5 billion. The majority of that cost -- 90% -- is for treatment of HIV.
Both studies appear in the January/February issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.
STDs Affect Youth Disproportionately
Researchers say sexually transmitted diseases are among the most common infections in the U.S. According to national estimates for 1996, more than 15 million new STD infections occur each year.
But since 1996, expanded screening programs and improved detection tests have allowed researchers to more accurately monitor STDs.
In the study, researchers used data from a variety of sources to estimate the prevalence of the eight most common STDs among 15- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. in 2000. The diseases included chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes, HPV (human papillomavirus), hepatitis B, trichomoniasis, and HIV.
Researchers found despite decreases in the rates of some STDs during the 1990s, an estimated 18.9 million new cases of STDs occurred in 2000 and 9.1 million of them were among young people aged 15-24.
Of the STDs examined, HPV was the most common, followed by trichomoniasis and chlamydia. Together, these three STDs accounted for 88% of all new STD cases among 15- to 24-year-olds in 2000.
The second study estimated that HIV and HPV were the most costly STDs in terms of direct medical expenses associated with treating them and accounted for 90% of the total financial burden of newly diagnosed STDs in 2000.
Researchers say these findings may still underestimate the true impact of STDs on youth. They say any attempt to estimate the prevalence of STDs is severely hampered by the fact that many STDs do not cause symptoms and often go unreported because the infected individual doesn't seek medical care.
In addition, young, apparently healthy, persons may have limited contact with health care providers that might screen for STDs.
"Nevertheless, given the available information about the burden of STDs among sexually active young people, our estimate of 9.1 million new infections [48%] in 2000 among 15-24-year-olds demonstrates the tremendous toll these infections continue to have on youth in America," write CDC researcher Hillard Weinstock and colleagues.
New Approaches Urged to Combat STDs
The CDC reports did not offer explanations for why STDs affect youth disproportionately, but experts say the findings show that new approaches are needed to reduce the impact of STDs on youth.
"These numbers on the human and financial costs of STDs in youth should be a wake-up call for the nation," says Joan Cates of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School of Journalism and Mass Communication, in a news release. "We're not using the tools already available to fight these infections, and we're letting down our youth because of it."
"At the most basic level, we are not communicating well enough to make a difference," says Cates. "We need a comprehensive dialogue on the issue."
Sharon Camp of The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that conducts and sponsors research on sexual issues, says federally sponsored STD prevention programs need to look beyond abstinence.
"Although abstaining from sexual activity is guaranteed to prevent STDs, some adolescents -- and virtually all young adults -- will eventually choose to have sex," says Camp, in a news release. "Before they do, they need realistic sex education that teaches them how to prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancies. It is essential to have medically accurate information about condoms and other contraceptive methods, and guidance in how to access appropriate prevention, testing, and treatment services."