As they navigate the transition to adulthood, sexually active youth and young adults must also worry about many different sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as chlamydia, HIV, herpes, and HPV (the virus that causes genital warts and has been linked to cervical cancer). In recent years, expanded testing for STDs and better reporting practices across states have improved our understanding of exactly how many youth and young adults get STDs. But while better data helps us understand the scope of the problem, what the data tell us is rather alarming.
Despite being at record lows just a few years ago, rates of three of the most common STDs—chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis—have risen substantially, according to the most recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).* In 2016, more than 2 million new cases of these three STDs were reported, an all-time high. Most alarming, however, is that youth and young adults (ages 15–24) account for over half of all new STDs each year, even though they make up only one-quarter of the sexually active population.
Young women, in particular, are disproportionately affected by a number of STDs, including chlamydia and gonorrhea. Researchers estimate that as many as one in four sexually active adolescent females has an STD. Why is this percentage so high, and what can we do to reduce it?
First, not enough women are tested regularly. Many women often do not show any symptoms of STDs and therefore may not seek testing or treatment. In fact, recent research found that only 27 percent of sexually experienced females ages 15–25 reported being tested for an STD in the past year. Concerns about confidentiality, lack of perceived risk, and cost were cited as barriers to testing. Second, as the CDC highlights, budgetary cuts in STD prevention efforts, societal stigma, insufficient awareness of the importance of screening among some health care providers, and barriers to health care services (e.g., cost, lack of transportation, clinic hours) have likely also played roles.
The costs of STDs, however, are substantial for young women. Every year, undiagnosed and untreated STDs result in adverse health outcomes for women, such as pelvic inflammatory disease (a major cause of infertility) and pregnancy complications such as ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage, or stillbirth. In fact, the CDC estimates that STDs result in infertility for more than 20,000 women across the United States each year. Additionally, pregnant mothers can transmit STDs to their infants during childbirth, negatively affecting the infant’s or child’s health from birth.
The CDC has called on federal, state, and local health departments to increase prevention activities—especially for people who lack access to health care. To make improvements on this issue, the following are recommended:
- Making routine STD screenings and provision of up-to-date information on STDs a standard part of medical care
- Improving rapid testing and treatment capabilities
- Developing and implementing well-designed school-, clinic-, or community-based programs to educate, change behaviors, and reduce the risk of contracting STDs among youth and young adults
- Protecting adolescents’ confidentiality when receiving sexual and reproductive health care services
Increasing the number of young women (and men) who are regularly screened and treated for STDs is a vital next step in reducing the spread of STDs nationwide, thereby improving the health of young women, men, and children.
*The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tracks annual cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis (as well as chancroids) in the United States. States are required to report these STDs to the CDC each year. Although various data are collected on other types of STDs, they are not reported at the national level and are difficult to track.