For many, they’re scary to think about, carry a nearly unbearable stigma and, if you believe the statistics, are practically everywhere.
Still, nobody wants to talk about them.
One in two sexually active young people nationwide will get a sexually transmitted disease by the age of 25, according to the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health.
And while there were some small declines locally in the number of new cases of diseases like chlamydia and HIV during 2012, gonorrhea rates increased 10 percent throughout northeast Indiana.
As in nearly every year, the area’s average rate of STDs was higher than Indiana’s as a whole, as well as the nation’s.
Statistics like that have spurred local health officials to try new tactics in reaching those who may need to be educated about STDs – which includes young and old alike.
The local health department in the past year took to Facebook and created several pages directed at getting the word out on STDs.
The hope is to get younger people talking by reaching them through social media and get parents to realize what their children might be exposed to and ways to prevent or combat such diseases.
Adults don’t want to think about their kids doing those kinds of things, and young people don’t want to talk about it because it’s embarrassing, said Dr. Deborah McMahan, Allen County health commissioner.
It’s really causing us to stretch at new ways to have the oldest conversation in the world, she said.
Now, Facebook users can visit such pages as:
Talk About It, a campaign promoting communication about sex among youth and young adults
The Cost of Silence, which is designed to empower women to protect themselves from STDs
Be a Real Man, which encourages men to take the responsibility of knowing their STD status
Break the Silence, Remove the Stigma, which encourages gay and bisexual men to use protection and get tested for STDs regularly
Nationwide, the number of those infected with an STD and the financial burden it places on many can seem staggering.
In an analysis released in February, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found there are about 20 million new sexually transmitted infections in the United States every year.
Those diseases cost the health care system nearly $16 billion in medical costs alone, according to the analysis.
The same study estimated there are more than 110 million sexually transmitted infections among men and women across the nation.
Those are estimates, though, because many of these diseases go underreported, according to health officials. Locally, health officials can count only those who come through clinic doors.
For instance, the CDC estimates there are 24 million existing cases nationwide of HSV-2, the virus that typically causes genital herpes and is a lifelong infection. That ranks it as the second-most common STD.
But at the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health’s clinic, only 116 patients asked to be tested for the disease during 2012, fewer than any other sexually transmitted disease.
Another infection, HPV, or the human papillomavirus – of which there are more than 40 types and which is the most common STD nationwide – is one of McMahan’s biggest concerns.
In many cases, HPV goes away by itself before it causes any health problems, according to the CDC. But two strains of the virus cause about 90 percent of warts that are sexually transmitted, according to McMahan. And these strains can also cause cancer.
According to recent studies and experts, HPV passed through oral sex is causing a rise in the number of tonsil and throat cancer cases in the United States.
Cancer is now what I worry about, McMahan said. Oral sex with HPV and anal cancer is on the rise. This is a long-term risk.
That’s one reason McMahan strongly encourages parents to have their children vaccinated against the HPV virus, though that vaccination has been the point of controversy in the news and for many parents.
Vaccines for HPV came under fire a few years ago after U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., claimed they could cause mental retardation in children.
Other reports suggested that parents balked at such vaccines because they would promote promiscuity among their children.
So many are reluctant to get their children vaccinated here, McMahan said.
Other STDs that are curable – such as chlamydia – can cause major health problems if left untreated, especially for women, McMahan said. Those problems include infertility or chronic pelvic pain.
And as is often the case, many people have no clue they have an STD because symptoms can appear to be mild.
Which is all the more reason, McMahan said, that parents need to talk to their children and have frank discussions with them.
Discussions that probably should come earlier than a lot of parents are comfortable with, she said.
Parents need to know what their kids are doing, she said. Kids are doing things earlier.
Parents need to be told that if you don’t talk to your kids, nobody will.