STDs More Common Than Thought

March 1, 2007 — -- Like most young women, Jaime knew that unprotected sex could lead to sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.

However, when she chose to have sex with her new boyfriend, she did so unprotected.

"I guess it was embarrassment," she says. "I waited for him to say something about it, and since he didn't, I didn't either."

It wasn't until months later that Jaime realized the enormity of her decision.

During a routine visit to her gynecologist, the doctor performed a pap smear "to check for STDs and be on the safe side," Jaime says.

"I remember her saying that everything looked fine, and that she'd be surprised if anything came back positive."

Days later, Jaime got a call informing her she had contracted chlamydia.

"I was devastated," says Jaime. "I was so angry with myself for not caring as much as I should about protection."

When it comes down to it, Jamie says she never thought the people she trusted enough to sleep with would have an STD.

"I thought I couldn't get an STD because I wasn't overly promiscuous, and I thought that only 'dirty' people got them."

STD Rates Continue to Rise

As many as 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases are diagnosed each year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly half of these infections are among young people ages 15 to 24 years old.

"This is a disturbing trend that we've been seeing for a while," says Eli Coleman, professor and director of the University of Minnesota program in human sexuality.

Chlamydia is the most commonly reported infectious disease in the United States, according to the CDC.

In 2006, more than 970,000 new cases of chlamydia were diagnosed -- a 51 percent increase from 2004.

Because chlamydia often goes undiagnosed, it can cause severe health problems. Up to 20 percent of those infected can become infertile.

Increasingly, other common STDs are being diagnosed in sexually active youths.

Herpes infects at least 45 million people 12 years old and older. The CDC says one out of five adolescents and adults have contracted a genital herpes infection.

Even syphilis, a disease that sounds like a long-gone medieval malady, has had a resurgence.

Syphilis infected more than 8,000 people in 2005 alone. Among women, this was the first time in more than 10 years those numbers had gone up.

A Growing Complacency

Even though we live in a so-called information age, experts agree that there is more to practicing responsible behavior than what you learn in classes and on TV.

"It takes more than broad public awareness campaigns; you need to want to protect yourself," says Coleman.

Because information about the risk for STDs tends to be theoretical, many take on the attitude that "this may happen to someone, but it won't be me."

"Some people think they are immune," says Jennifer Falotico Taylor, a clinical psychologist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.

"They think there's going to be a pill, there's going to be a treatment. … The consequences may not be so bad."

Taking Charge of Sexual Behavior

The risk of contracting an STD may sound benign, but it translates to a risk for infertility, painful sores or warts, and the stigma of carrying a disease for the rest of your life.

"People really need to think about consequences and think more positively about the advantages of protection," says Coleman.

For many, the opportunity to be intimate presents itself, and neither partner is prepared.

"Talking about responsible sexual behavior ruins the romance," says Taylor. The problem, she says, is protection "should have been part of the moment from the beginning."

To stop and say things can't go further without protection can be awkward and embarrassing.

But this kind of thinking "is a fundamental problem," says Coleman.

To take charge of the situation shows maturity and a level of respect and caring for the other person involved.

"We need to get to the point where being responsible about sexual behavior carries a sense of pride instead of embarrassment."