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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008 06:58 am

Disease outbreak

More teenagers getting sexually transmitted diseases

When Don Hunt started surveillance of sexually transmitted diseases for the Sangamon County Department of Public Health in 1995, his primary concerns were human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and syphilis.

Since other local organizations stepped in to help fight against HIV, and the health department's 10-year plan nearly eliminated syphilis, Hunt now battles an arguably more dominant sexual health scare. "Gonorrhea and chlamydia have covered all that ground and more," he says.

Sangamon County ranks among the top five Illinois counties for combined outbreaks of gonorrhea and chlamydia, two of the most common sexually transmitted diseases.

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health's July surveillance update, 324 cases of gonorrhea and 639 cases of chlamydia were reported to the county between January 1 and July 31, compared to 316 cases of gonorrhea and 592 cases of chlamydia reported during the same period in 2007.

What's even more disturbing is that 15- to 19-year-olds face the greatest risk of becoming infected. IDPH figures show that nearly 36 percent of statewide patients infected with gonorrhea and 40 percent of those infected with chlamydia fall into this population.

Hunt argues that teenage sex, which, he says, stems from a sexually explicit culture paired with an "it can't happen to me" mindset, is not going to go away. He's seen patients as young as 12 years old — the minimum age for seeking treatment without parental consent — tested for STDs at the health department's clinic.

"They're having sex," Hunt says. "We don't want to admit it — schools, parents — but they're doing it."

The good news, he adds, is that more reported cases means that more people are seeking treatment. They've taken advantage of the walk-in clinics at community organizations, the county jail, and the University of Illinois-Springfield. And they assist Hunt and his team in testing and treating their partners.

The health department becomes more aggressive when people aren't as cooperative. Staff members knock on doors, send letters, and make phone calls, Hunt says, "as fast as we can to get to them and prevent the further spread of it, so the disease stops with them."

Hunt says more prevention and education are needed. Teenagers should know that gonorrhea and chlamydia don't always show symptoms, but can cause damage to reproductive organs, even sterility if left untreated.

School District 186 has taken a first step in transitioning from an "abstinence-only" sex education program to an "abstinence-based" program for its high schoolers. Meanwhile the health department is working on a program to address teenage behavior using the advice of local teenagers.

"This thing is beatable," Hunt says. "We just have to come together as a community and figure out how to beat it."

Hunt recommends that anyone not in a monogamous relationship be tested for STDs every three months. Services are offered at the health department's downtown location, 1415 E. Jefferson St., from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday, 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday and Friday, and 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com.

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