Speakers address high rate of STDs in Alachua County

Teresa Mercado-White, the regional minority HIV/AIDS program coordinator, speaks at the Alachua County Health Department during the Stop the Denial Community Mobilization Summit, a meeting about the spike in the number of STDs among 15-24 year olds in Alachua County, on May 5, 2013, in Gainesville, Fla.

Elizabeth Hamilton / The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 11:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 11:30 p.m.

Remember the first time you had sex— and asking your parents beforehand if you could?

Yeah, right.

Almost no one asks for their parents’ permission to have sex, or even talks to their parents about sex — and that’s precisely why schools and community organizations need to step in to educate teenagers about sex and sexually transmitted diseases, said Teresa White-Mercado, the regional minority AIDS coordinator for the Alachua County Health Department.

Mercado-White was one of several speakers at a public meeting Monday night at the health department on the high sexually transmitted disease rates among young people in the county and the ways to combat and prevent STDs in that population.

Alachua County has the fourth highest levels of STDs out of Florida’s 67 counties, according to Florida Health Department data released in March, and much of that is driven by people between the ages of 15 and 19. Since the data was released, the county has mobilized efforts to reach young people — largely through texting campaigns with content about STDs.

Brandon Johnson, a junior at Gainesville High School, volunteered to text his peers, many of whom have since asked him questions about STDs, and confided in him.

“They can’t go home and tell their parents. Sometimes I’m the only one who can listen,” said Johnson, who was one of the speakers at Monday night’s meeting.

“At Gainesville High, STDs are running rampant,” Johnson told the audience of about 100 people, representing local churches, health clinics, the University of Florida, the police department and community members.

Johnson added that it’s important for young people to be involved in sex education since they can more easily reach their peers.

“We’ve got to reach people where they’re at,” Mercado-White said.

Brandi Roach, a student advisor for the RCP Movement at the University of Florida, which stands for “respect yourself; check yourself; protect yourself,” said the group does various initiatives such a handing out condoms on late-night campus buses and outside of nightclubs.

That may work for some students, but education needs to happen inside the middle and high schools, said Dr. Nancy Hardt, a professor at the UF College of Medicine.

“The parental conversation (about sex) happens from the school conversation,” Hardt said, adding that according to a Florida Youth Behavioral Study, kids consider school to be the most trustworthy source of sex education, and most parents prefer school classrooms to be the place where kids learn about sex.

Hardt unveiled some telling statistics from the survey about the state as a whole: one-third of high school freshmen are sexually active, and two-thirds of seniors; a quarter of seniors have had more than four partners, exponentially increasing their risk of having an STD and passing it on.

Hardt cited St. Lucie County as a successful example of sex education in the schools: the school board there trained 1,500 teachers in sex and HIV education, and the county dropped from having the 20th highest STD rates in the state to the 44th highest rates.

Dr. Thomas Martinko, who practices general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at UF, said that “contact interviews” — essentially tracking and testing all the partners of STD carriers — would be essential to containing what is considered an epidemic.

“These aren’t my patients,” Martinko said of the potential and past partners of his own patients. “I can’t contact them. The health department can.”

Martinko also suggested school-based or school-linked primary care clinics that can do STD testing, alongside testing for other diseases and even sports physicals.

Other suggestions from young people in the audience included making sex education part of the science curriculum, or talking about sex and STDs in after-school activities and clubs.

“Make it the cool thing to do,” one woman said.

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119, or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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