Testing urged in fight against STDs

You can say a lot in 10 seconds.

Consider the brief TV spot aired during the past few weeks on KOBI Channel 5 by Planned Parenthood: "One in four young people will get a sexually transmitted disease by age 25, and most won't know it. Respect yourself. Get tested. Call Planned Parenthood."

Images of healthy-looking young people, in groups and in couples, appear on the screen while the message is spoken. A toll-free phone number (1-800-800-7526) flashes on the screen as the ad ends.

The "just the facts" approach is designed to encourage young people to take care of themselves, said Paul Robinson, director of community relations in the Medford office for Planned Parenthood of Southwestern Oregon.

"If you treat young people with respect, they will act responsibly," he said.

The local ad is part of a national "Get Yourself Tested" campaign funded by the Kaiser Family Foundation and MTV (the music video channel) to encourage young people to get tested for some of the most common STDs, such as chlamydia.

The tests are available at no charge, funded locally by $21,000 from the Spirit Mountain Indian Tribe Foundation, Lane County United Way, Pacific Source Foundation and private donors.

Robinson said people who call the toll-free number are automatically routed to the nearest Planned Parenthood organization to make arrangements to be tested.

"It doesn't matter where they call from," he said. "They'll always be connected to our nearest clinic."

Chlamydia is the most prevalent sexually transmitted disease, and it can cause permanent damage to a woman's reproductive system if left untreated. It's caused by a bacterium, Chlamydium trachomatis, that can take up residence in the cervix or the urethra (urinary canal). The infection can spread from the cervix to the fallopian tubes, and damage the uterus in a condition called pelvic inflammatory disease, which affects about 40 percent of women who don't seek treatment. In rare cases, pelvic inflammatory disease can force a woman to have a hysterectomy.

Besides the immediate health effects, chlamydia makes women more vulnerable to other STDs, such as HIV/AIDS. Women infected with chlamydia are five times more likely to become infected with HIV if they are exposed, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For women, symptoms can include an abnormal vaginal discharge or a burning sensation when urinating. Men may have a discharge from the penis, a burning sensation when urinating, or pain and swelling in the testicles.

Unfortunately, chlamydia shows no symptoms in half to three-quarters of women who are infected, and about half of all infected men. People who don't know they're infected don't seek treatment, and they may pass it to others if they're sexually active.

Tom Harger, Oregon's STD program manager in the Department of Human Services, said chlamydia's lack of symptoms makes it difficult to know exactly how widespread it really is. Data is based on reported cases, but many infections are never reported.

"We have huge numbers (of cases) after 20 years of screening," Harger said. "The numbers tend to go up year after year. There must be a huge number of cases out there."

The one bright spot is that chlamydia can be easily treated with antibiotics such as azithromycin or doxycycline. Physicians often prescribe a single dose of azithromycin or a weeklong course of doxycycline taken twice daily.

Statewide, Oregon had a case rate of 1,517 per 100,000 people age 20 to 24 in 2008. Jackson County's rate was higher — 1,628 per 100,000 in the same age group. Josephine County's rate was lower — 1,257 per 100,000 for the 20-24 age group.

Josephine County's relatively low number could simply indicate that people aren't seeking treatment, Harger said.

"We only know what's reported," he said.

Research conducted by the CDC released in 2008 estimated one in every four American girls between the ages of 14 and 19 is infected with one of the most common STDs: chlamydia, herpes simplex virus, trichomoniasis, or the human papilloma virus.

The two most common STDs in that study were HPV (18 percent) and chlamydia (4 percent).

Even before the current campaign, Planned Parenthood clinics were screening clients for STDs. Of the 1,700 cases of chlamydia identified in Jackson, Josephine and Lane counties in 2006, for example, about 35 percent were discovered at Planned Parenthood clinics.

Robinson, the Planned Parenthood spokesman, said the organization is trying to help young people act responsibly by giving them straightforward, factual information.

"The scary part of this is that people who are infected may not even know it," he said, "and they may be transmitting these diseases without ever knowing it."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.

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