Why African-American teenage girls are infected with STDs at higher rates

Why African-American teenage girls are infected with STDs at higher rates

Margena A. Christian


The news is alarming. Nearly half of the African-American teenage girls-compared with only 20 percent of White and Mexican American teenage girls-in a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study had at least one STD.

The study also reported that one in four young women between the ages of 14 and 19 in the United States is infected due to unprotected sex with at least one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs): human papillomavirus (HPV), Chlamydia, herpes simplex virus, or trichomoniasis.

April is STD awareness month. And JET explores why African-American girls are infected at higher rates and what can be done to stop it.

Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said, “The epidemics of STDs are hidden because we don’t talk about them and many times there are no symptoms at all. A substantial proportion of the population has no symptoms at all. An on-going screening for infection for STDs is really an important part of prevention and an honesty in our dialogue.”

Differences in sexual behavior between races wasn’t a reason for the higher prevalence of STDs in Blacks, said Dr. John Douglas, director of CDC’s division of STD prevention. Conditions in the environment, he said, might be considered a contributing factor.

“Individual behavior, when looking at sexual practices among the girls in the study, was not different between African-Americans and White adolescents,” said Douglas. “It looks like it’s very much related to conditions in the community. African-Americans typically have higher background rates of infection. So a woman who has a single partner, for example, is [still] much more likely to be exposed to infection and acquire it if she’s in an African-American community than a White community.”

Douglas believes the reason for this disparity is access to health care.

“We know insurance rates [those who have insurance] are lower and the use of preventive services are lower,” he said. “But we also think it’s related to the many challenges in these communities. High rates of incarceration, high rates of unemployment, difficulties with transportation, and potentially lower quality health care services.”

The study reported that the two most common STDs were HPV (18 percent) and Chlamydia (4 percent).

HPV is a virus that can cause cancer and genital warts. Most people who are infected with HPV will have no signs or symptoms. Lack of knowledge that one is infected can cause a person to transmit the virus to a sex partner.

Chlamydia is a bacterial STD that can damage a woman’s reproductive organs, ultimately causing infertility. Known as a “silent” disease, about three quarters of infected women and about half of infected men have no symptoms, according to the CDC.

STDs can also increase the risk of HIV transmission for both women and men, said Fenton.

“There is a small proportion of African-American women who are infected by bisexual men. The more common route of transmission is through heterosexual

intercourse,” said Fenton. “Incarceration is a factor that has a tremendous impact on Black communities both in terms of men being taken out of the community and getting infected in prison. Men coming out of prison with infection and spreading it to female partners. Or when men are away from their female partners, new relationships are being formed in communities, resulting in multiple partners or multiple concurrent partners. All of these are risk factors for increasing STDs and HIV as well.”

Greater awareness and dialogue are solutions in the fight against STDs, both Fenton and Douglas agree.

“We have to get the topic of sex, sexuality, and sexually transmitted diseases out of the corner and in the bright light,” said Douglas. “Whether talking about the down low or talking about STDs in adolescents, sex is an uncomfortable topic for Americans to talk about. We love to see it on TV. We love to market it, and we love to have it in our music, but we don’t like to talk with each other about it. We really need to get beyond that if we’re going to think prevention progress.”

Douglas added, “The community can make a difference …We’re encouraging people to be aware and to communicate. We don’t have to have these diseases among us as a people or among us as a society.”

By Margena A. Christian


Be Safe, Be Aware: Ways To Prevent STDs

* Delay the onset of having sex, because the longer you delay becoming sexually active, the safer you’ll be.

* Use condoms at all times! You can’t look at a person and tell if he or she has an infection. While condoms are not perfect, they can reduce infections.

* Be careful about choosing partners and limit your number of sexual partners. Do not have multiple partners and be alert if you are aware that a potential partner has multiple partners.

* Get an HPV vaccine before you start having sex and if you’re already sexually active, get one.

* Have annual tests for Chlamydia, HIV and gonorrhea.

Sources: Dr. Kevin Fenton and Dr. John Douglas of CDC

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