Multiple reports have trumpeted the idea that millennials are having less sex than preceding generations. That might be so, but federal, state and local data show that young people sure are trading sexually transmitted diseases at increasing rates.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control this week noted that the entire nation has experienced “jumps” in STD rates that “are part of a years-long trend.” “Chlamydia predominates among young women,” according to a CDC statement.
Nationally, the CDC last year recorded a 314 percent rise in syphilis since its historic low in 2001 and a 48 percent rise in gonorrhea since its nadir in 2009. “Half of all new STD infections each year strike people between 15 and 24 years old,” according to the CDC.
Professor Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, called the discrepancy between low sex rates and high STD rates among millennials “a bit of a mystery,” according to the CDC.
Los Angeles last year saw a 4 percent annual increase in chlamydia, a 27 percent increase in gonorrhea, a 16 percent rise in syphilis and a 61 percent increase in congenital syphilis, which is the spread of the disease to the unborn, according to recently released data.
“The majority of chlamydia cases occur among young women and men (less than 24 years), and disproportionately impact African-American and Latino youth,” according to a statement from the L.A. County Department of Public Health. “Nearly 75 percent of female gonorrhea cases are among 15- to 29-year-olds.”
A majority of syphilis cases involve man-to-man sex, the department states.
Dennis Paradise, founder of Southern California–based Paradise Marketing, which works with top condom makers including Trojan, Lifestyles and Durex, says that the STD increase is a reflection of the ease with which the morning-after pill can be obtained. In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved its use without a prescription or age limits.
“The Plan B pill moved from behind the counter to over the counter,” Paradise says. “At that time, a lot people who were condom users said a girl will just take the pill tomorrow — we don't have to worry about pregnancy. At that period of time, condom sales dropped and STD rates started to rise.”
A 2015 research paper in the journal Health Economics backs up his theory. “Providing individuals with over-the-counter access to EBC [emergency birth control] leads to increased STD rates,” according to a summary.
In fact, Paradise says STD rates out there are worse than what has been noted by the CDC and the L.A. County Department of Public Health because so many folks don't report them to their doctors. “Part of the problem is you don't necessarily have a reliable count,” he says.
Fred Wyand, director of the American Sexual Health Association, told the Centers for Disease Control that federal budget squeezes are part of the problem, too. “Tighter budgets mean public health programs dedicated to prevention and treatment must continually do more with less,” he said in a statement. “This certainly impacts STD rates.”
Paradise says that a renewed public awareness program is in order. The late 1980s and the 1990s were awash in safe-sex campaigns and warnings that HIV kills. Now that HIV isn't so lethal, young people are becoming apathetic about their sexual behavior, Paradise says.
L.A. County officials say they'll increase access to testing, reduce barriers to treatment and continue to “increase community awareness,” according to a statement.
“The first solution is better and more effective education and communication to the sexually active population,” Paradise says. “They have to understand that the risk is real and it's not going to go away.”
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