South Carolina’s teen STI rates fluctuated during pandemic, long-term impact unclear

Health News

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) – 2020’s sexually transmitted infection numbers paint a mixed picture regarding South Carolina’s teens. 

While chlamydia rates for the 15 to 19-year-old age group decreased by 14% from 2019, the gonorrhea rate increased by 6%, according to Beth De Santis, the chief executive officer of Fact Forward, an advocacy organization that works to lower both teen pregnancy and STI rates.

However, it’s not yet clear if those numbers were due to a true decrease in rates, or if fewer teens were getting tested during the pandemic, as medical systems were strained, hospitals closed to elective procedures and the use of dating apps skyrocketed. 

“There is a definite fear that these numbers will continue to go up,” De Santis said. 

Fact Forward will continue to monitor the data. Data hasn’t yet been published about if testing and treatment numbers also decreased during the pandemic.

Conway Medical Center has not seen any change in the rates of people who have been diagnosed with an STI, according to a spokesperson for the medical system. 

While teen pregnancy numbers have decreased in the last decade, many teens haven’t been using condoms during sex, according to results from the South Carolina 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey. 

About 37.4% of high school students aged 15 and older have had sexual intercourse, according to the survey results. About half of high school juniors reported that they have had sex.

More students answered that they wore a condom the last time they had sex than who said they didn’t. 

Condoms were the most frequent form of contraceptive used, followed by birth control pills. More students answered that they did not use a contraceptive method than who said they’d used the withdrawal method, had an IUD or an implant, or used a shot, patch or birth control ring. 

Within the last year of taking the survey, 76.5% of teens had not been tested for an STD other than HIV, such as chlamydia or gonorrhea. 

While birth control is effective at preventing pregnancies, De Santis said it doesn’t prevent the spread of STIs. 

She said the approach to teen reproductive sex health has shifted. While the focus on pregnancy prevention originally focused on teenage girls, it now targets all genders equally. 

Fact Forward works with STI detection and treatment, and wants to increase the HPV vaccination rate. It is also working with adults who are around youth so teenagers have someone to ask questions about sexual health. That way, De Santis said, they’re not getting health information from friends or the internet. 

She said that 90% of teens want their parents to talk to them about relationships and sex, but that 90% of adults think their children should learn that information from the school system, which then says children should learn about sexual health from their parents. 

That loop is why Fact Forward is training parents, teachers and health professionals to become what it calls an “askable adult” that teens can come to with questions.

“You want to become an askable adult,” De Santis said. “It’s not something you can do overnight.”

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