Parents want the best for their children. They want them to grow up to achieve their full potential and to be free from physical and psychological harm. However, we know that sometimes, despite parents’ best efforts, children may be exposed to and even succumb to harmful life events and situations.
For example, Americans are all too familiar with statistics depicting Black children and youth as being at higher risk of harm due to gun violence. Because of community concerns, programs and awareness campaigns to end gun violence have formed across the country.
Much less media coverage and attention has been given to a serious health problem that affects Black youth at alarmingly high rates. Data reveals that Blacks are often at higher risk of STDs than youth in other racial groups. While STD infections aren’t always associated with the risk of serious illness or death, they can cause complications that threaten or take the lives of young people.
Chlamydia is the most common bacterial infection among youth. Figures from 2013 show that rates of chlamydia are five times higher among 15-19 year old Black females than their White counterparts. And, among 15-19 year old males, Blacks have rates of chlamydia that are more than nine times higher than in Whites.
Like most STDs, chlamydia often causes no symptoms and therefore an infected person may not seek treatment. Females who do not receive treatment for chlamydia in a timely fashion may experience severe complications, such as an overwhelming pelvic infection. If this occurs, pelvic organs that include the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes may be significantly damaged and require surgical removal.
Gonorrhea is the second most common bacterial infection among youth. Reports show that Black females, ages 15-19, have rates of gonorrhea more than thirteen times higher than their White female counterparts. Among males ages 15-19, rates of gonorrhea in Blacks are over twenty one times higher than in White males. The potential complications that may result from an infection due to gonorrhea are most serious in females and are similar to those associated with chlamydia infections.
HIV remains the most feared STD. When the Center for Disease Control reports HIV rates among youth, they refer to young people between the ages of 13-24. Approximately 64,000 youth were living with HIV at the end of 2012. Of those diagnosed with AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), a result of HIV infection, 156 died of this condition in 2012. Black young males are at highest risk of acquiring HIV. Estimates suggest that new infections among Black males are more than two times higher than among White or Hispanic males. Gay and bisexual male youth generate most new HIV infections in this age group.
The reasons for the increased risk of STDs among Black youth are multifold. No doubt, higher rates of socioeconomic disadvantage and less access to health care play a role.
The first step in fighting any problem involves creating awareness. More parents, school health educators, health professionals, and community leaders must become educated about the potentially life-threatening STD risks youth, and Black youth in particular, face.
While governmental agencies must do more to combat this problem, there are some simple and straightforward measures that all of us can take to help reduce the incidence of STDs among youth, including discouraging early sexual activity, strongly encouraging condom use for all who are sexually active, supporting comprehensive sex education at the middle and high school levels, and sending a clear message to our elected officials that all youth must have access to affordable reproductive health care services, including STD counseling, testing, and treatment.
Sheila Overton, M.D., is a board certified OB/GYN and author of “Before It’s Too Late: What Parents Need to Know About Teen Pregnancy and STD Prevention”. She can be reached at droverton.org.