The STD Crisis: We have to save our kids

This requires action, and now.

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Villarosa argues for strong action to save the children in the midst of the growing STD crisis.

It was hard to miss the recent terrible news that 3.2 million girls have a sexually transmitted disease. Worse, blacks were infected at twice the rate of white or Mexican-Americans, with more than half of black girls and young women reporting at least one. Again and again, those stats were splashed across newspapers, trumpeted on websites and floated at the bottoms of the TV screens.

Alright already—we got it. We know the numbers, but what's the why? Why are so many U.S. black girls and women infected and why is our rate double that of the others? Most news reports didn't bother to explain the difference in rates; because most of the reporters didn't ask.

The huge unanswered question—and the 10,000-pound elephant in the news—is: Do the high rates mean that compared with their peers, black teen girls are having more indiscriminate sex with less protection?'

The answer is no. Even the CDC was quick to point this out: John Douglas, director of the Division of STD Prevention, stressed that "This does not mean that African Americans are taking greater behavioral risks." And, in fact, previous studies of high school students have found that black youth more often use condoms and are much more likely to be sober when they have sex.

Poverty and lack of access to healthcare play a role in these numbers, but socioeconomic factors can't explain them away. In reality, a knotty tangle of factors heighten black women's risk of contracting STDs.

First and foremost, it's a numbers game. African Americans make up roughly 12 percent of the population but comprise nearly 50 percent of people infected with Chlamydia and almost 70 percent of those infected with gonorrhea. Like those of other races, we generally have sex with each other, which confines the infections within our social networks. In other words, we're keeping STDs in the family: Each unprotected sexual encounter with another black person is riskier than it might be among members in a group with a smaller pool of infection. It's not more sex; it's more infection. Truly, it takes only one time.

Still there's more to the STD epidemic than just numbers. In the Age of AIDS, why is anyone having unprotected sex at all—ever? It's not because they don't know better. This is what seems very baffling, but what we need to quickly understand.

High rates of STDs among bright, beautiful and talented young women is a tragedy and a crisis; the kind of national emergency that demands an action plan. What do we need to do—and do now—to stop a generation from getting infected with a disease that could make them sick, destroy their fertility or, at worse, kill them? Here are my ideas; let's hear yours, too:

1) Demand better sex education in schools. What is offered to school-age kids today isn't just inadequate; it's embarrassing.

A few years ago, when I asked my teenage niece what she learned in her high school "sexual health" class. She informed me that abstinence was the only way to keep from getting pregnant and contracting HIV because "condoms, don't work." In her community, a suburb outside of a large city in the South, schools must teach abstinence-only or lose federal funding. Educators can mention birth control only in the context of failure rates.