RISKY BUSINESS: What's Behind the Surge in Sexually Transmitted Diseases

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Epidemic Threatens Black Community And Prompts Call For National Education Campaign

EXACTLY who's sleeping in your bed? The answer to that question may present critical consequences because nowadays ignorance of your partner's sexual history can be deadly. For, just when you thought that most sexually transmitted diseases were at least under control, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that there is a multiple epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, and it's hitting the Black community like a hurricane.

Fifteen million Americans are newly infected annually with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that respect no boundaries and strike across all gender, racial and socioeconomic lines. But during the last decades, sexually transmitted diseases have pounded the Black population at a rate of up to six times the sexually transmitted disease rate of other nationalities.

Case in point: If you're Black, you are 30 times more likely to be infected with gonorrhea than your White counterparts, and 10 times more likely to get the disease than Hispanics.

If that's not enough to make you commit to a life of celibacy, Blacks are leading the pack in herpes infections as well. The CDC reports that of the 1 million new herpes cases each year, Blacks are three times more likely to be infected with the disease than Whites. Since herpes is an incurable disease that may not bear symptoms, most sufferers are unaware of their infection, and the disease has steadily increased among men and women in all racial groups.

So why are Blacks especially at risk of contracting these potentially deadly diseases? The answers may surprise you, for experts say the problem is much more serious than just a lack of practicing safe sex. Some experts say the problem is not enough has been done to educate minorities on the dangers of unprotected sex; others believe the sex disease epidemic boils down to economics, since Blacks traditionally have been poorer and have little or no access to quality health care.

The most startling view of all, however, is that some minorities don't believe there is a problem, mainly because they don't trust the sexually transmitted disease statistics. It has been often said that there are three types of lies--lies, damned lies, and statistics, and there is a belief among some minorities that the higher incidence of sexually transmitted disease cases among minorities may be related to faulty or slanted statistics. Adding to that belief is the manner in which sexually transmitted diseases are reported. Both public health facilities and private health-care providers are required by law to report sexually transmitted diseases accurately and completely, but private health-care providers are not as likely to do so. Since Blacks are more likely to seek care in public-health facilities, the reasoning is that Black sexually transmitted disease cases are overreported, whereas White cases are underreported.

Dr. Helene Gayle, director of the CDC's National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, says that although there may be some overreporting of sexually transmitted diseases in the Black community, this does not completely explain the higher levels of sexually transmitted disease infections.

"I think there is clearly some degree of greater reporting through public clinics, and yes, there will be some relative degree of sexually transmitted disease overreporting," Dr. Gayle says. "However, we get data from a variety of sources--laboratories and private doctors included, and these results are not biased. Even if there were some overreporting, in some cases Blacks are 30 times more likely to be infected with a sexually transmitted disease--the trend remains that sexually transmitted diseases are still affecting African-Americans at a greater rate."

Dr. Gayle also believes that social variables, including the disruption of the family, have ignited the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. …