Experts struggle with stemming tide of STDs in county, especially among youth
Published: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 6:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 6:28 p.m.
What does it mean if your cherry pops? My girlfriend and I ran out of flavored lubricant, so is it OK to use syrup instead? Can I get an STD without having sex?
Local resources for STD and HIV testing:
Facts about STDs from the Alachua County Health Department text message awareness campaign:
These questions — all real ones from Gainesville teenagers — might seem silly, but they reflect a serious situation: Alachua County has the fourth-highest rate of sexually transmitted diseases out of the state's 67 counties — and STDs are most prevalent among 15- to 19-year-olds. The two more common diseases are chlamydia and gonorrhea.
The data were released last month by the Florida Department of Health and served as a wake-up call to the Alachua County Health Department.
"We are in a crisis situation in Alachua County," said Teresa Mercado-White, health education program consultant at the county health department.
In response to the data, Mercado-White and her colleagues quickly organized a campaign to reach out to teens — and college students, since STDs were prevalent among 20- to 24-year-olds as well.
She recruited high school students at Gainesville High School and Eastside High School to send text "blasts" to their friends about sexual health and STDs every morning for 30 days. They started on April 1, which began STD awareness month.
The texts are chock full of information about how you can get STDs, test for them and treat them. They contain websites, phone numbers and area facilities that test for free.
The teens in turn can text back all sorts of questions about sex, such as the ones at the beginning of this article, and Mercado-White and her team respond within minutes.
University of Florida junior Sara Ardila, a volunteer at the health department who is part of the team, also sends the texts to 15-20 of her close friends and is posting them on her Facebook page, where she has about 800 friends.
"When you post a status, you have 10 people who like it ... posting these every day, nobody likes them," Ardila said. "One of my close friends texted me: ‘Sara, you're freaking me out with these messages. I don't know anything.' "
But Ardila added, "She's getting tested because of them."
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One recent weekday night, Mercado-White spoke to about 25 students in the lobby of Pugh Hall on the UF campus. Known for her no-nonsense presentations on campus and around town — where she has handed out condoms to audience members — Mercado-White changed her tactic slightly that night.
Instead of simply telling people to play it safe with their sexuality, she wanted to instill fear about what can happen if you don't.
She gave five volunteers at the front of the room a glass of water each and asked them to take a sip and then spit it back into their glass. Then they exchanged glasses and were asked to drink again. Those who would drink would get to take the cash collected from the audience, which was about $30.
No one bit. The reason?
"You all have values," Mercado-White announced. And that's what they need to have in their sex lives too, she added.
That starts with basic knowledge about STDs, she said, adding that sexual health "is one thing schools don't teach that's important."
Mercado-White has been invited to various organizations such as churches to talk about abstinence, but abstinence doesn't strike as much of a chord with students, she said. "They tell me ‘That's not realistic,' " Mercado-White said. "These kids are being exposed."
For that reason, not discussing sex is not an option, she said.
"It's like giving a kid the keys to a car and not talking to them about how to drive it."
She tells concerned parents, "I'm in the business of slowing it down. ‘Do you want them to get that information from a friend who knows nothing?' These kids just want resources."
However, Rebecca Tanner, a health educator at the county health department, added that part of the underlying problem is that "we live in an over-sexualized culture," to which teens are perhaps most vulnerable.
"At that age, the emphasis should be on getting a grade and getting into college," Tanner said.
Tanner added that the "hot spots" for STDs in Gainesville by ZIP code are 32608 and 32641 — the southwest and east sides of town.
While reaching out to poor areas with limited resources and health care access like these is vital, STDs also encompass a more basic and universal issue, regardless of socioeconomic status, gender or race: simply breaching the subject in a relationship, no matter how loving it is and how well informed the partners are about STDs.
"You're not gonna say in the heat of the moment, ‘Hey, have you been tested?' " said Michelle Plitnikas, a member of the women's student association at UF who attended Mercado-White's recent presentation. "It's hard to go from knowing (about STDs) to talking about them."
So how do you have that conversation?
"Probably along the lines of, ‘I want our relationship to be healthy. I want to make sure we're both safe and enjoying this,' " Ardila said. "If you start by saying, ‘For both of us.' "
Talking about STDs with physicians also can still pose something of an obstacle, especially with the younger age group, said Stacy Shiver, the manager of the STD program at the Florida Department of Health.
While practitioners nationwide are encouraged to screen people under age 24 for STDs, they might not always do it, Shiver said.
"Even though we've progressed so far … there's difficulty discussing it in the course of medical care, which you would think would be the one and only free arena," Shiver said.
Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or email@example.com.