According to the 2012 Monroe County Department of Health’s Adolescent Health Report Card, 57 percent of high school students in the city of Rochester reported ever engaging in sexual activity. Subsequently, rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea among Rochester teens ages 15 to 19 are about three times higher than rates among teens in the rest of New York State, with the highest rates occurring among African American females.
Of specific concern to the African American Health Coalition is the rise in disparities among blacks with STDs compared to their white counterparts in Monroe County.
- Nationally, in 2015, blacks were six times more likely to have chlamydia, nine times more likely to have gonorrhea and five times more likely to have primary and secondary syphilis than whites.
- In Monroe County, there was an even greater disparity with rates of chlamydia among blacks at nine times the rate of whites, and gonorrhea at 21 times the rate among whites. Additionally, while adolescents and young adults, ages 15 to 24, represent less than one quarter of the population, they accounted for more than half of the reported cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea.
These are our children who, due to a lack of knowledge, a lapse in judgement, or maybe just bad luck get infected with a disease that can have long-lasting effects on their lives. Such is the case with human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. and can cause life-threatening cancers such as cervical, anal, vaginal, vulvar, penis and throat cancer. HPV-related cancers usually do not produce symptoms until it is fairly advanced and hard to treat. And, unfortunately, women and girls of color tend to be diagnosed with cervical cancer at later, more advanced stages than white women. In Monroe County, there are more than twice as many black women diagnosed with cervical cancer as white women.
Moreover, STDs can be transmitted without the carrier ever knowing they had an infection. STD symptoms can be confusing, or in some cases, non-existent. Young men with STDs may have no symptoms at all. In young girls and women, symptoms may be confused with other conditions like yeast infections, or may be overlooked because they just seem to go away over time without treatment. However, this can be dangerous because young women face the most serious long-term health consequences of untreated STDs, including pregnancy complications, miscarriages, preterm births, infertility and cancer – along with the psychological impact of being diagnosed.
So, what can we do to keep our children safe during intimate situations? The African American Health Coalition believes we must:
- Educate ourselves and our children about the signs and symptoms (or lack of symptoms) of STDs;
- Have open and honest conversations with our children about safe, sexual practices and remove the stigma of STDs;
- Encourage our children to access STD prevention and treatment services;
- Vaccinate our children, starting at age 11, with the HPV vaccine. Cancers associated with HPV are preventable with this vaccine, but many do not utilize it;
- Encourage young women to start getting Pap tests at age 21, and to get follow up care as needed;
- and talk to our health care providers about STD testing and treatment guidelines, improving awareness about STDs and enlisting support for more preventive care
As a community, we must do more to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. These actions can help us start the conversation.
Juireith Donko-Hanson, MPH, is research & data analysis coordinator, division of epidemiology and disease control, Monroe County Department of Public Health. She investigates trends in communicable diseases in Monroe County by tracking data, generating reports, and conducting surveillance activities. She represents the Department of Public Health on several community coalitions, and is a member of the African American Health Coalition.