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Time to do better for Minnesota’s teens: Ways to address their high and rising rates of chlamydia

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Julia Urban
Minnesota’s teens are facing high and rising rates of chlamydia across the state. Although teens aged 15-19 are only 7 percent of the population in Minnesota, they made up 25 percent of new cases of chlamydia in Minnesota in 2017. These adolescents are impacted by the statewide policy and social environments that we’ve created. These environments are failing adolescents by not ensuring that students have the information they need to make healthier choices about sexual health.

Since 2007, the rate of chlamydia among adolescents has increased by 50 percent. Hennepin County, where I live, has one of the highest rates of chlamydia among adolescents. More than 1,800 adolescents here have the sexually transmitted infection (STI). High rates of chlamydia can be found across the state of Minnesota, in counties both urban and rural.  

Youth of color are disproportionately represented in new cases of chlamydia. Some of the most dramatic representations of this are among black and Hispanic/Latino youth compared to white youth. Compared to white youth, black youth are nine times more likely to be diagnosed with chlamydia and Hispanic/Latino youth are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with it.

Fewer teens using barrier methods

Adolescents in Minnesota today are 10 percent less likely than they were in 2007 to use barrier methods – such as condoms – when they engage in sexual activity. Condoms are an effective tool in preventing the spread of STIs. So why wouldn’t adolescents use them?

Adolescents may not know how to talk about condom use with partners. Sexual health, including STIs, is a stigmatized topic, and adolescents may not have access to conversations in which they would learn about STI transmission and prevention. Teens who receive STI diagnoses often lack the skills and confidence they need to converse with partners about the diagnoses. In Minnesota in 2016, 38 percent of 9th graders and 28 percent of 11th graders who were sexually active reported having never talked with their partner about protection from getting STIs.

Minnesota’s statutes are also letting teens down. Not all adolescents across Minnesota receive comprehensive sexuality education — including discussions on safer-Fesex practices — from their schools because state statutes don’t require it. Students who don’t receive this education in schools may struggle to find accurate, non-stigmatizing information elsewhere. In the home, if parents discuss sex with adolescents, it is often in a fear-based framework that talks about the dangers of STIs, but not about prevention.

Serious health consequences

High rates of chlamydia have serious consequences for our whole community, and for teens themselves who get chlamydia. In the United States, costs of treating the most common preventable STIs, which include chlamydia, are over $15 billion. When chlamydia is undertreated or left untreated, it leads to serious health problems. Teens may later have to cope with chronic pelvic pain or ectopic pregnancies, where a pregnancy grows outside the uterus, leading to internal bleeding, infection, or death if not treated. Anyone who has chlamydia that is undertreated or untreated is at risk for infertility and increased risks of getting HIV.

We can take action to do better for adolescents in our Minnesota community. We can expand teens’ access to the resources and information they need to make healthier choices related to sexual health. Increasing teens’ access to information is needed to address the fact that adolescents aren’t using barrier methods to prevent the passage of chlamydia.

One way to do this is to repeal the current statute defining sexuality education in our state, which poorly defines the information adolescents get in school, and replace it with legislation to expand access to comprehensive sexuality education across Minnesota. Instances of chlamydia cost the state valuable dollars in treatment, and, when untreated, lead to serious detrimental health outcomes. We need to act now to do better for our adolescents.

Julia Urban of Minneapolis is a Master of Public Policy and Master of Public Health student at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities.

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