March 26, 2008

Testing, Prevention Important For Lowering College STD Rates

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According to a recent study by the Center for Disease Control, at least one in four teenage girls in the United States has a sexually transmitted infection. This statistic translates to over 3 million teenagers infected.
A 2003-04 government health survey conducted by Center for Disease Control researcher Dr. Sarah Forhan tested 838 girls for four infections. Of these girls, 18 percent had the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), 4 percent had Chlamydia, 2.5 percent has Trichomoniasis and 2 percent had the Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV).
College students are especially vulnerable to STI contraction. A 2002 survey of students conducted by Gannett showed that roughly 65 percent of students had engaged in vaginal intercourse, while 70 percent had engaged in oral intercourse. The 2002 National College Health Assessment also reported that only 54 percent of students regularly use condoms during vaginal intercourse, 29 percent during anal intercourse and only 4 percent during oral sex.
“College campuses notoriously have populations of individuals that engage in lots of sexual activity and high-risk behavior. When you put those together, it’s not surprising that these statistics are present in the population,” said Zoe Belkin ’09, president of the Sexual Health Awareness Group.
Although Gannett could not report Cornell-specific STI statistics due to resource and confidentiality issues, Dr. Alexandra Hall, a Gannett clinician, said that HPV and HSV are the two most prevalent STIs on campus. HPV, a group of viruses that infects the skin, is the most common. HPV is caused by direct skin-to-skin contact and cannot be entirely protected by condom use. About 20 million people are thought to have an active HPV infection at any given time.
“HPV is like the common cold of sex,” Hall said.
While symptoms may include warts on the hands, feet or genitals, most cases are asymptomatic. A number of types of HPV can also lead to cervical cancer due to abnormal cell growth. However, Hall noted that in one study, nearly 90 percent of HPV cases cleared up by themselves.
HSV is another common STI on college campuses nationwide. According to the American Social Health Association, HSV is a viral, recurrent skin condition that can occur in both the oral and genital regions. HSV is transmitted through direct skin-to-skin contact and can cause skin lesions. It is estimated that one in five people in the U.S. have genital herpes, yet 90 percent do not know they have the virus.
Despite the statistics, there are numerous ways of decreasing one’s risk of contracting an STI.
“Condoms are the big one. They help a lot … and significantly reduce risk of STI transmission,” said Nina Cummings of Gannett Health Promotion.
Getting tested when appropriate is also another important step in maintaining a healthy sexual lifestyle. Cummings explained that insurance only covers the cost of testing if a student shows symptoms. If no symptoms are shown, the student must pay out of his or her own pocket. However, Planned Parenthood of Tompkins County provides confidential STI and HIV testing, along with many other services, to men and women based on a sliding scale. Therefore, the cost of testing for students tends to be extremely low, if not free.
“No one is ever turned away because of an inability to pay. If they cannot pay anything, they are still served,” said Robin Gauge, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes.
Tompkins County Health Department also provides free, confidential HIV testing.
“Really, the thing is to be protected, be upfront with your partners about your behaviors and history, follow the testing guidelines, and if you have any symptoms, don’t hesitate to seek care,” Hall said.