October 13, 2012 11:34:38 PM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
It's a typical fall evening in Columbus. Hundreds have packed the stands at Columbus High School to cheer the Falcons to victory for their homecoming game. At the top of the bleachers, away from their parents and out of earshot of teachers, a group of young boys have gathered. As it often does with teenage boys, the conversation turns to sex.
They talk openly about their sexual experiences but asked that their names not be used for fear of their parents' and teachers' reaction.
One of the youths, age 15, says while he has used a condom before, he prefers not to use one. He says he lost his virginity when he was 11-years-old. Three years later, he became a father.
He has never been tested for a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
The young father's friend admits he, too, lost his virginity at a young age -- 12. The boy currently has a girlfriend and says that while they have had sex, he would not consider himself sexually active.
"We've only had sex like five times," he says.
When asked why they do not use protection, both young men give the same answer.
"It just feels good without it," they say.
While all of the young men claim to know someone with an STD, none of them seem concerned about catching a disease. However, they are quick to ridicule their friend about his rumored STD.
Sitting in the bleachers with his friends, a young member of the group is regularly teased about having an STD. While he adamantly denies it, his friends are persistent in their claims that the teen had sex with a girl who is infected with Trichomoniasis, commonly referred to as "the trich" or "the blue waffle" by young people. Instead of being ostracized, the teasing appears to be good natured, with all of the boys, even the one rumored to be infected.
There is little doubt today's teens are sexually active. That they are especially vulnerable to contracting STDs might be surprising, however.
The Center for Disease Control estimates teens represent a quarter of the sexually active population in America. They also estimate those teenagers are responsible for half of STDs contracted yearly. The CDC estimates there are 19 million new STD infections in the United States every year.
The picture is particularly bleak in Mississippi, which leads the nation with gonorrhea infections, according to a study released by the CDC. At a rate of 209.9 cases per 100,000 residents, Mississippi has the highest per-capita rate of gonorrhea in the nation.
In 2010, there were 6,195 cases of gonorrhea reported in Mississippi. Of that number, 4,310 of those diagnosed were ages 15-to-24.
In Lowndes County, there were 111 reported cases of gonorrhea in 2011. In Oktibbeha County, the number of gonorrhea cases was 95. There were 32 reported cases in both Noxubee and Clay counties.
Hinds County has the highest number of reported gonorrhea cases in the state, with 1,117 reported in 2011.
What's more, there is some evidence to suggest gonorrhea may be becoming resistant to antibiotics used to treat the disease.
Gonorrhea is caused by a bacteria that can quickly grow in the reproductive tract in women and the urethra in both men and women. The bacteria can also grow in the mouth, throat, eyes and anus.
Left untreated, the disease can cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) in women. PID can lead to internal damage of the Fallopian tubes and cause infertility.
In men, gonorrhea can cause a painful infection called epididymitis in the tubes attached to the testicles. In rare cases, epididymitis can cause sterility.
Gonorrhea can also spread to the blood or joints, creating a life-threatening condition.
In addition to having the highest rate of gonorrhea in the nation in 2010, Mississippi also had the second highest rate for chlamydia and the third highest syphilis rate.
Chlamydia is the most frequently reported bacterial STD in the United States. Known as a silent disease because of its lack of visible symptoms, chlamydia can cause infertility if left untreated. Both chlamydia and syphilis can be cured with antibiotics.
The state's response
Mississippi is taking measures to combat the growing trend of young people having unprotected sex.
Earlier this year, the state legislature gave school districts an option beyond its "Abstinence Only'' program. Now, districts can teach "Abstinence Only" or "Abstinence Plus" in the classroom.
Lowndes County, Columbus, Starkville and Oktibbeha County school districts have elected to teach "Abstinence Plus." Clay has chosen "Abstinence Only."
"Abstinence Plus" is taught to children from sixth to 12th grades as part of a health class. The program encourages students to abstain from sex from a health standpoint. The program educates teens on the dangers and risks of having unprotected sex.
However, the program solely focuses on teaching the teens to say 'no' and at no point encourages them to use condoms.
Leonard, 13, an eighth-grader at Columbus Middle School, said while he knows people his age who have had sex, he hasn't yet. He said if and when he does decide to have intercourse, he will use a condom thanks to a conversation he had with his father.
"My dad told me, 'A girl may look clean on the outside but you don't know how she is on the inside.'" the young boy said with a shudder. If you find out someone has an STD, people will talk about them. That's just nasty."
In 2011, there were nearly 300,000 chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV tests performed at the Mississippi Department of Health Public Health lab.
In Lowndes County, the rate of STDs has declined in recent years but the numbers are still alarmingly high.
There were 12 reported cases of HIV in the county in 2011, six cases in Oktibbeha County and two each in Noxubee and Clay counties.
In 2011, there were 166 people living with HIV in Lowndes County, 75 in Oktibbeha, 50 in Clay and 32 in Noxubee.
In Lowndes County, there were 435 reported cases of chlamydia, 394 in Oktibbeha County, 124 in Noxubee and 130 in Clay in 2011.
Life with an STD
For Amber, a woman now in her late 20's, those numbers hit close to home. She has been living with genital warts for 10 years.
"It's like living with a secret," she said.
Diagnosed when she was a teenager, Amber said she was shocked when she first discovered she had the disease.
"Never in a million years did I think he would have something," she said of her boyfriend at the time.
The two did not use a condom.
"He didn't look like he had anything," Amber said. "He worked out everyday. He was concerned about his diet. He was the picture of health."
When she told her boyfriend she had genital warts, he confessed he had them, too.
"He knew and he just didn't tell me,'' she said. "It was unbelievable."
Amber, who is single, said having an STD and trying to date is a very difficult situation.
"Having an STD and being an honest person is a very thin line to walk," she said. "At the same time, it is a very honest way of determining who really cares and who wants to be with you and who doesn't."
For some local high school girls, they claim choosing to not have sex separates the boys who are interested in them and the boys who are only interested in sex.
Jeralyn is a 15-year-old sophomore at Columbus High. She and her friend Bethany, 15, run track and play basketball. The two girls adamantly said they will not have sex for fear that getting pregnant or contracting an STD will ruin their athletic careers.
"People don't take into consideration how it can affect your future," Jeralyn said.
Both girls plan to go to Mississippi State, where they say they will major in kinesiology. Neither of them has a boyfriend.
Both girls said they decided not to have sex after talking with their parents at a very young age.
Jeralyn said her parents began talking to her when she was 10.
"I had siblings older than me so I saw that, too. I don't want to make a dumb decision that will jeopardize my future."
One of their fellow students, who wished to remain anonymous, said boys won't date her because she doesn't have sex.
"They'll say they respect that but they'll throw hints. They think they can just talk you into it.
"I'm not having sex. I know better."
The group of boys from Friday night's football game readily admitted that, out of the group of 15, none of them had been tested, even though STD testing is offered free of charge at any health department in the state.
The blood and urine test checks for HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. Results are returned within two weeks.
Testing is 100 percent confidential and can be given to a person of any age without parental consent.
The health department also gives away condoms to anyone who asks for them.
For some teenagers, the high STD rates among teens are still not enough to convince them to use a condom.
"I know when (to stop),'' said the 15-year-old father.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.