Certain STDs Reach Highs

Article excerpt

Sexually transmitted diseases continue to spread among Americans, many of whom discount the risk of contracting one. A congressman who also is a doctor is sounding a shrill warning.

Rep. Tom Coburn, one of the few practicing doctors in Congress, regularly delivers babies -- at least 100 so far this year. But he also informs many patients that they have a sexually transmitted disease, or STD. The news can be crushing, says the Oklahoma Republican. "You break hearts."

The personal suffering caused by STDs, plus their explosive growth in the U.S. population, has prompted Coburn to write a prescription for the nation. "It's time for the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies to die," he said on the House floor recently. Unless the flood of STDs is checked, it will "complicate the lives, if not take the lives, of our young people." The only real answers, says Coburn: abstinence and monogamy.

There is wide agreement that some STDs have reached unprecedented levels. Twelve million cases are reported each year, of which 3 million are teenagers. (By comparison, there are about 1.3 million cancer cases reported annually.) In 1996, the Institute of Medicine issued a report, "The Hidden Epidemic: Confronting Sexually Transmitted Diseases," warning of the "severe" social and economic burdens of STDs and calling for a "bold national effort to prevent these diseases."

Coburn's call for premarital abstinence and monogamy is not the most popular solution to the epidemic. More often, activists call for more public education, more health screenings for STDs and condom use. "Abstinence and monogamy are 100 percent effective if they are practiced," says Debra W. Haffner, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, or SIECUS. "But we know that abstinence and monogamy are not always practiced even by people who say they are practicing them.... There are lots of studies that show that if you give people good education, they will protect themselves."

According to SIECUS, proper condom use can block the spread of HIV virtually every time and can be "99.9 percent effective in reducing the risk of STD transmission when combined with spermicide." Others argue that condoms cannot protect against all STDs and are considered almost useless in preventing one of the fastest-spreading STDs, genital warts. Coburn says condoms are most effective against HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea, less so in stopping genital herpes and warts, both of which are incurable and often asymptomatic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 45 million Americans carry herpes, which causes painful outbreaks and is dangerous during pregnancy because it can damage or kill the fetus. …