Just when we thought today's teenagers were a whole new breed of sexually savvy sophisticates, reality intrudes in the form of a new study on sexually transmitted diseases.
According to a report published Friday in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, infection rates for the five most common sexually transmitted diseases have been soaring since 1997, while most public attention has been focused on HIV and AIDS. Teenagers from 15 to 19 have the highest infection rates, demonstrating they are either ignorant of or blasé about chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes and human papilloma virus.
What's especially unfortunate about this news is that rates of these diseases had fallen sharply until recently, and have climbed back again. According to Thomas Wong, head of Health Canada's division on sexual-health promotion, today's teenagers have not grown up seeing friends die of AIDS, and this has made them complacent about sexually transmitted diseases. As well, the public profile given to AIDS can give teenagers the mistaken impression that other diseases are insignificant in comparison and so are nothing to worry about.
But there are other factors behind this disturbing rise in disease transmission. Funding for public health campaigns has been reduced in many jurisdictions, and some schools are reducing sex education to squeeze in expanding curriculums or focus more on core subjects.
That means parents, politicians, educators and public health experts must do everything they can to restore attention to this fight. A whole new group of teens comes along every couple of years, unfamiliar with the safe-sex messages adults have heard so often. No one can assume they have picked up the information somewhere else.
Education is the key, because some behaviour is notoriously hard to change. Teenagers have never worried much about the long-term consequences of their behaviour, and have never felt terribly vulnerable to harm. Despite their supposed sophistication, most teenagers remain shy about sex, reluctant to talk about it frankly with partners, reluctant to insist on condom use and reluctant to ask adults for information about safe sex.
The only tried and tested solution to this tough challenge is to provide ample funding for education, and to insist on speaking extremely frankly to teens. That means graphic explanations not only of condom use and other safe alternatives, but of the impact of these sexually transmitted diseases. Certainly all teenage girls need to understand that a disease such as chlamydia can have devastating effects, and is the leading cause of infertility in women. All teens should realize there is no effective cure for genital herpes.
This latest study of sexually transmitted diseases has other implications. If teenagers are not using condoms, there is a growing risk that AIDS will spread in this age group. There is also a risk of even more teen pregnancies; 42,000 young women between 15 and 19 already become pregnant each year in Canada.
Sexually transmitted diseases are not new problems, and traditional diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis will never raise public terror the way AIDS did in the 1980s and 90s. But they are still dangerous diseases that must not be disregarded, certainly not as long as they are infecting tens of thousands of Canadians each year.