Epidemic: Talk to your teens about chlamydia

Emily Scribner-O'Pray Imagine that there is a serious illness that caused over 14,000 people in our state to get sick last year.  Those who are most vulnerable to this infection are our children, between the ages of 15 and 24.  Some people who get it have relatively few symptoms, and some get sick enough to be admitted to the hospital.

It turns out that this is not an imagined scenario, but is a real epidemic.  It’s not H1N1 or some other new strain of flu.  It’s chlamydia.

Last week, I spent the day at the Minnesota Chlamydia Partnership Summit convened by the Minnesota Department of Health.  This was a gathering of professionals and young people who came together to discuss the chlamydia epidemic that is now affecting our state.

People don’t like to talk about chlamydia.  It’s a sexually transmitted infection (STI), and as a culture we don’t like to have sincere conversations about sex.  Chlamydia is a serious illness that can lead to serious complications such as tubal pregnancy, pelvic inflammatory disease, and infertility in both women and men.

In Minnesota, chlamydia is a problem across the entire state.  About 1/3 of infections occur in the city, 1/3 in the suburbs and 1/3 in rural areas.  Chlamydia affects young people between the ages of 15 and 24 at significantly higher rates than other age groups.

It’s hard to imagine this many people getting sick and having virtually no attention brought to it, particularly an illness that disproportionately affects young people.  Yet, despite the numbers, we see little media attention or public outcry about this disease.

As parents of teens, we need to take chlamydia seriously and include it as part of the conversation when talking with our children.  Teens should understand that if they engage in any kind of sexual activity, they are at risk of getting chlamydia.  Chlamydia is sneaky – it often has no symptoms until it has already caused damage to the reproductive organs, particularly in women.  If young people are already sexually active, they need to be regularly tested for this infection as well as for other STIs.  Chlamydia is can be treated with antibiotics, but only if it’s diagnosed.

You can help protect your kids by doing these things:

  • Talk, talk, and talk. Tell your teens about chlamydia and how it can affect them, as well as talking about sexual decision-making, and other topics related to reproductive health.
  • Make sure your teen’s doctor feels comfortable talking to your child about sex. Not all doctors do, and this is an important area of teen health.
  • Educate yourself. It will be easier to talk to your teen if you feel confident in your own knowledge.
  • Make sure your teen has other adults you know and trust. Sometimes with sensitive issues, teens may not talk with their own parents, but will talk with someone else.

We can make a dent in this epidemic, but it’s going to take all of us – parents, community leaders, religious leaders, doctors and nurses and not least of all the young people themselves.

Emily Scribner-O’Pray is the Community Services Supervisor at Teenage Medical Service. Read more about Emily.

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