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Commentary: Programs try to combat sexually transmitted infections

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 13, 2009 - For the past several years, St. Louis has led the country in sexually transmitted infections.

Currently, St. Louis is ranked number one in rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, and we are number five in the nation for syphilis and HIV.

Last year, the CDC reported that one in four teenage females - ages 14 to 19 - has an STI; and by age 25, one in two sexually active young people will be infected. Of the 19 million new STDs that occur every year in the United States, most will go undiagnosed.

These staggering figures, coupled by our own local statistics, is a call to action. Planned Parenthood has pledged to do more to protect young people's lives and health.

Through national and local partnerships, Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region has announced two new initiatives to raise awareness, increase access to medical services, and engage parents and leaders in our community - "GYT" and Real Life. Real Talk.

During April, all Planned Parenthood health centers here in St. Louis and across the country will participate in "GYT," or "Get Yourself Tested." Through a partnership with MTV, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the CDC, GYT includes a massive television media campaign, a new stand-alone website, text messaging, and other outreach activities to direct teens and young adults to STI testing and treatment locations. Individuals can go to www.gyt09.org to find the nearest Planned Parenthood health center that is offering free or low cost testing and treatment during April.

For health care providers, the challenges are daunting. Half of all teens in America are sexually active. And because many sexually transmitted infections have no symptoms, those who are infected may not know, and may unknowingly infect others. Fear, lack of information, misconceptions, lack of health insurance, poverty and social stigma keep many people from getting tested. GYT attempts to address many of these barriers.

We also recognize that education and information are powerful tools that motivate individuals to take action to improve their lives. Since 1999, Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region has been the leader in sexuality education and teen pregnancy prevention for the community. Through community partnerships, we have trained more than 1,500 teens in our award-winning programs: Peer to Peer Education, Boys2Men and Teen Advocates for Sexual Health. These programs promote abstinence and sexual responsibility and increase teens' interpersonal skills with peers and parents. They also provide accurate and age-appropriate information about sex, sexual health and sexual responsibility.

Our newest initiative - Real Life. Real Talk. - targets parents. We know that parents are key to keeping their teen daughters and sons healthy and safe. In 2005, 47 percent of female high school students and 46 percent of male high school students in Missouri reported being sexually active. Yet, the majority of teens who graduate from public schools in Missouri receive no formal sexual health information. Parents, therefore, must play a larger role.

Surveys report that teens who had close relationships with parents were more likely to abstain from sex, wait until they were older to become sexually active, have fewer partners and use contraception.

"Real Life. Real Talk." is designed to foster open and honest communication between parents and their teenagers. This initiative will include online information and resources, and "Sex Ed for Parents" programs provided at collaborating partner organizations. These 90-minute programs give parents an inside look into the world of teen dating, media and technology, and an understanding of adolescent development and behavior. The focus is on increasing open and honest talk at home and to help parents take advantage of "teachable moments" to provide guidance and support for teen decision-making.

Planned Parenthood is working with community leaders and organizations, schools and churches to help launch and sustain "Real Life. Real Talk." Our hope is that we will heighten awareness, shift attitudes and increase positive and meaningful community and family conversations about sex and sexual health.

Reducing the high rates of STIs in St. Louis demands commitment and a community-wide, coordinated effort to educate young people and their parents, and to invest in programs and medical services that promote prevention, wellness and risk reduction. We must do more to keep our teens and young adults healthy and safe. Teens depend on us. Planned Parenthood and our partners intend to start a new conversation.

Paula Gianino is president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region. 

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