MAHONING VALLEY Educating youths about STDs
Students say they want more information on the lesser-known diseases.
By PAUL WHEATLEY
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
STRUTHERS -- Amanda Tice, a Struthers High School sophomore, and her peers know about the dangers of HIV and how it's transmitted. What they want is a little more information on other not-so-well-known sexually transmitted diseases.
What do most of us know about chlamydia?
We aren't even sure how to pronounce it, but it's one of the most common STDs in the United States and it can cause blindness.
What do we know about gonorrhea, which affects more than 12,000 people in Ohio, alone?
Both infections are sometimes symptomless.
Then there's human papillomavirus -- a viral infection with more than 100 types. About 20 million people in the United States are infected with HPV, according to Planned Parenthood.
Ohio Department of Health statistics indicate that people 13 to 24 are most susceptible to these diseases.
About 34,000 people in that age range tested positive for chlamydia in Ohio in 1997. Of that number, 1,210 of them are Mahoning Valley residents.
It's not that schools aren't trying to educate youngsters.
In Struthers, fourth-graders get a general sex education class, seventh-graders get a course on STDs and sophomores generally take one health course. Tice took the health class last semester.
"We learned about eating disorders and how you give birth," she said. "Anything I know about [STDs] has come from the school nurse."
Pat Costello, Struthers High School nurse for more than 20 years, has an open-door policy with students.
"This is something that needs to be done in all schools," she said. "When I talk to nurses in other schools, they say the same thing."
Same elsewhere: Other districts mirror Struthers' health agenda.
Connie Belltempo, a high school and middle school health instructor in Lisbon schools, said her course focuses on seventh- and 10th-grade pupils.
"In seventh grade they focus primarily on abstinence," Belltempo said. "We do talk about STDs as a possible consequence of sexual activity."
She said 10th-graders get into more descriptive teachings about STDs and their treatments, but the class focuses primarily on relationships.
In Howland schools, health classes focus on HIV with sixth-graders and STDs with eighth-graders.
Diverse course: Freshman take a one-semester health course which discusses sexuality, puberty, cancer, domestic violence, decision-making and one day each of STDs, HIV and pregnancy.
"The ninth-grade level is the last time they get it, which I think is unfortunate, but that's the way it's structured," said Karen Cunkle, a high school/middle school nurse coordinator in Howland.
Struthers junior Stephanie Varga said students need education on STDs at an earlier age, then yearly reinforcement. Wayna Hightower, director of nursing with the Youngstown City Health District, said the majority of people visiting the agency's clinic are not teens; they're people 20 to 40. Most of the teens who do test positive for STDs are female, Hightower said.
Since January 2000, 65 females between 13 and 17 have tested positive for gonorrhea and 111 had chlamydia in Mahoning County.
Among males the same age, there were nine cases of gonorrhea and six cases of chlamydia.
What it means: Hightower says that's a worrisome indication that very young girls are having unprotected sex with older males.
With the advent of educational programs by groups such as Planned Parenthood of Mahoning Valley, school officials have more tools to combat the spread of STDs than they did decades ago.
Linda Kostka, vice president of development of community services with the local Planned Parenthood, said educators like her visit about 50 schools in 15 districts in the Valley in a year.
"I think, on the whole, kids are more informed today that they used to be," she said.