the Howard County Health Department is looking to reframe its approach to safe-sex talks for teens amid rising rates of sexually transmitted infections.
The number of STI cases across the country and in Maryland hit record highs in 2016. Howard County followed suit, reaching its own record of 195 cases of gonorrhea and 948 cases of chlamydia. Teens between 15- and 19-years-old made up 14 percent of new gonorrhea cases and 29 percent of new chlamydia cases.
The rate of teen cases over the last four years has skyrocketed. In 2012, the rate of chlamydia among 100,000 teens was 666; in 2016 it was nearly double that at 1,259. The rate of gonorrhea in 2012 was 79 out of 100,000, in 2016 it 125.5.
To combat the rise, Director of Child Health Jackie Douge said the department is undertaking new outreach efforts to talk with teens about safe sex.
The department is conducting focus groups among teens and parents about how it could improve outreach efforts and better connect with teens over the discussion of sex with their parents and doctors.
“What would resonate with Howard County teens and parents so we meet them where they are?” she said.
Douge attributes some of the rise in cases to increased awareness of, and access to, STI screening, so more instances of the diseases are being detected. Douge said one of the goals of the focus groups is to determine a better way for more teens to know where they can receive free and confidential screenings as well as more information about prevention and treatment.
The health department offers free, confidential screenings at its office on Stanford Boulevard in Columbia.
One of the responses Douge said the department has received from the focus groups is a fear among teens about how they’ll be perceived by peers if they test positive for an STI. She wants to combat that with increased education and outreach on options for getting tested and treated.
“We have clinics, we have screenings, but I think we just need more,” she said.
While some teens may find the topic sensitive, Margot Watson, vice chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Howard County General Hospital said that when it comes to her patients, she assumes many teens are sexually active.
Some of the reason for the increase, she said, is likely a “it won’t happen to me” mindset among many teens who don’t see themselves as at risk. Also, as the number of females using birth control, such as the pill or intrauterine devices goes up, the number of people who use condoms may decrease, putting more people at risk of contracting an STI.
One new strategy the department is trying is a video contest among teens to submit a short video about STI prevention and awareness. Douge said the more creative idea is just another way the department is trying to reach its younger residents.
“We’re brainstorming opportunities for getting youth engaged and having it come from their voices,” she said. “Perhaps peer-to-peer might help get the message out better than [from adults].”