It was close to evening and Barbara’s Place was nearly empty – only clusters of students filled the seats. One group that hung out at a table outside was happy to talk about sexual health – in general. The students got quieter, however, when asked if they would share their STD status on the Internet.
“That’s private information,” Sabrina Ruiz, a freshman broadcasting major said. “I’d keep it to myself or just tell my close friends.”
College students are accustomed to oversharing: Aspects of their lives are announced in Facebook status updates, typed out in 140 characters or less on Twitter and detailed in blogs.
However, there is something else college students seem to be sharing – sexually transmitted diseases. But they might not be thinking about that, they have a Facebook status to update.
“Some would share their results,” Ruiz said. “People like to share everything, and they want the attention,”
Dr. Peter R. Kerndt, director of the sexually transmitted disease program in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said that one in four people under the age of 25 have an STD.
“It’s kind of gross,” said Marie Tabarez, a junior communications major. “I thought people were a lot smarter than that. It makes you second guess people.”
According to the blog “10 Truly Shocking Stats on STDs and College Students” on nursingschools.net: “It is estimated that one in four college students will contract an STD during their time at school. In the larger population, this works out to 50 percent of people getting an STD at some time in their life.”
Venice Morrison, a junior psychology and speech communication major, said that sexually transmitted diseases are not something she talks about with her friends.
“It comes up in jokes,” Morrison said. “But in a serious manner, no, not at all… as an issue amongst our peers, no.”
Although students are not discussing STDs with their friends, they are on their mind for good reason, considering how common they are among this age group.
Junior creative writing major Samantha Tallerino said the only time she ever discussed STDs with her friends was when she found out that a person could be infected without even having sex.
“It doesn’t really ever come up, because we have never had that issue,” Tallerino said.
Students might not be talking about sexually transmitted diseases with their friends, but they are talking to the clinic on campus. Cynthia Denne, director of Student Health Services, said a “fair amount” of students come in to be checked for STDs. The Student Health Center tested 234 students for STD infections last year, although the number of those that tested positive is unclear, because Denne says they track the number of visits, but not the outcome.
“We have the availability to do a variety of testing for students who come in with STD concerns, and women who want to talk about family planning,” Denne said. “When female students come in to talk about family planning, birth control or have reason to be concerned about an STD, we test for two of the most common STDs in our college-age population, which are gonorrhea and chlamydia.”
The Student Health Center can also test students for HIV free of charge.
“It is a bit alarming, because there goes being free spirited! It’s kind of like, ‘Wow this is a real issue close to home, not just somewhere far like Africa,’” Morrison said.
But not everyone is shocked to hear those statistics. Senior business major Marius Baiesc says that students these days are ignorant about sexual health.
“Morality is diminishing and people are sleeping around with a careless attitude, allowing alcohol or drugs to influence them, which makes them not realize what they are doing and with who,” Baiesc said.
Six sexually transmitted diseases are reportable in the state of California. A reportable disease is one that must be reported to local, state or federal health administrators when diagnosed, according to medterms.com, a glossary of medical definitions.
There are a number of other viruses that are spread sexually, but not categorized under the STD umbrella. One of those is the human papillomavirus, or HPV.
Kerndt said that HPV is not listed as an STD because it is so common, and there is nothing that can be done to treat it. However, he does recommend a three-dose vaccine regime, which defends against 70 types of HPV, for both boys and girls age 12 and older. He says men and women up to age 26 should also be vaccinated for HPV prevention.
Vaccinations are important, because HPV can cause genital warts. Some forms of HPV – there are 70 types – are known to cause cervical cancer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, HPV is the most common STD on college campuses, and is mostly asymptomatic, making the rate of transmission significantly greater. The second most common STD among college campuses is chlamydia, and the third most frequently transmitted is genital herpes.
According to The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, chlamydia and gonorrhea are the “two most common reportable communicable diseases in the United States.” More concerning for people in Southern California: the most current national data, which observed all United States counties in 2009, ranks Los Angeles County first for the number of cases of chlamydia and second for gonorrhea.
According to the department, 44,648 chlamydia cases and 9,501 gonorrhea cases were reported in the County in 2010. Diagnoses of chlamydia have been on the rise for more than five years in a row. Of the 54,149 total combined cases, 32,835, or 61 percent, were among women, and 32,270, or 60 percent, were among youth ages 15-24.
The two diseases are easily diagnosed and treated with antibiotics, they can be severe when left untreated. Often asymptomatic, chlamydia and gonorrhea can lead to infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, permanent internal scarring, chronic pain, and potentially life-threatening tubal pregnancy. Scarring can also complicate pregnancy, and it is the leading cause of maternal death, says Kerndt.
Denne said that when a woman student tests positive for chlamydia or gonorrhea, the Health Center encourages her partner to also be treated.
“We recommend testing to any female students that come in for birth control— that is the buy-in on that. We think it’s the right thing to do and have that as part of our plan.”
“(But) it is a little intimidating to go get tested,” Morrison said, “because in the back of their mind they’re thinking ‘what if I (test positive)?’”
It is also common for people to feel embarrassed about going into a health clinic to get tested.
“Anyone who resides in L.A. County, is under 25 and female, can log in (online) and request a kit,” Kerndt said.
“Within a week they can get the result of that test. It’s very convenient.”
Tallerino said that no one should ever feel embarrassed to talk to their sexual partners about getting tested together before getting intimate. She has a strict rule when it comes to new relationships.
“Every time I date someone, if we decide to take it to that level, we both get tested first to prove we’re clean,” she said. “I won’t do anything with anyone until I know. You can pretty much get tested for free, so it’s not like it’s a hassle. Whenever I get into a relationship with a guy, that’s one of the first things I do.”
Baiesc says it is important for colleges to teach students about STDs.
“They can remind students of the quick spread of such diseases and encourage students to care more about themselves and others,” Baiesc said.
The University of La Verne does provide sexual health resources to students. Resources come in the form of free testing as well as free condoms, and brochures with information regarding STDs and HIV.
“I would encourage students to come to the Health Center for whatever their need may be, not just for a flu or sore throat,” Denne said. “Your sexual health is one of the more important things in this age population. It’s confidential, your information doesn’t leave this office. If your parent calls, we aren’t going to tell them why you were there. It’s covered with your tuition … there is no reason not to come.”
Still while the discussion of STDs is broadening, and some students agree with the need to stay on top of their own STD status, it will likely be awhile before “Tested positive for herpes!” becomes a common Facebook status update.
For more information, visit the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health website at lapublichealth.org/std or call the ULV Student Health Center at 909-593-3511, ext. 4254.
Frank Elaridi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.