One in four?

The CDC teenage sex study

Patty Elvy, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood in Northern Nevada, says it doesn’t matter what percentage of young women have an STI, they must have their health needs met.

Patty Elvy, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood in Northern Nevada, says it doesn’t matter what percentage of young women have an STI, they must have their health needs met.

Photo By Erik Stabile

The anticipation. Flesh against flesh. A soft cheek, hard stubble. Sweat and grunting and a final orgasmic release. The emotional, physical, and psychological satisfactions obtained from sex are incomparable to any other activity we share with another person. But nature has a way of balancing things out; for every pleasure, there is pain: thus, the sexually transmitted infection (STI).

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) proclaimed that roughly one-in-four adolescent women in the United States has a STI. The study examined 838 women ages 14 to 19 and found that 26 percent had one or more common STI. The infections included, but were not limited to, human papillomavirus (HPV), chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. These numbers have been widely reported by the media. The New York Times, for example, ran the headline “Sex Infections Found in Quarter of Teenage Girls.” But do these statistics apply to Washoe County?

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder reports that, as of 2006, there were 12,495 women between the ages of 15 and 19 living in Washoe County. Using the CDC’s “one in four” theory, approximately 3,124 of these residents would have an STI.

Since every positive test of an STI must be reported to the county health department, the CDC’s theory can be tested. In their “2006 Annual Communicable Disease Summary,” the Washoe County District Health Department compiled information on reported cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Amongst adolescent women ages 15 to 19, there were 291 cases of chlamydia, 36 cases of gonorrhea, and no reported cases of syphilis. These numbers suggest only a 2.6 percent rate of infection in Washoe County, though this excludes many STIs, including HPV—the most prevalent infection in the CDC study.

The comparison between the CDC study and the Washoe County report is inexact. Jennifer Howell, Sexual Health Program Coordinator for Washoe County, explains that the differences are in the process of collecting the data. “We’re given information on the client and the positive test, and we work with health care providers or clinics to make sure they get appropriate treatment. The reported diseases are chlamydia, syphilis, and gonorrhea … we don’t know the real prevalence of HPV, trichomoniasis or herpes because they’re not reported.”

The CDC used a random sampling to collect their data—selecting people from across the nation to fill out a survey—so, unlike the Washoe County study, their data includes cases that might have gone unreported. But the CDC only sampled 838 women between the ages of 14 to 19. Since the study did not include 13-year-olds, about 14 percent of teenagers are not even represented by the statistic. (And the youngest, of course, are least likely to be sexually active, which would further invalidate the results.) And even with carefully balanced racial, geographic and economic demographics, is 838 women a large enough sample to represent the 10 million adolescent women in the United States?

Even if the “one in four” statistic is not accurate, there is one undeniable conclusion: STIs continue to be a major factor in our sex lives. But there are ways of combating them. In addition to contraceptives, Planned Parenthood offers screenings and treatment for STIs.

“We screen for chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, HPV, and HIV… if we find something, we want to make sure the person has their healthcare needs met,” says the Public Affairs Director for Planned Parenthood in Northern Nevada, Patty Elvy.

“One in four” is a scary statistic that looks good in a headline. But regardless of the accuracy of these figures, the concept remains the same: keep informed and keep safe.