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In the know

Sexually transmitted diseases are proving to be brutal teachers

Issue: "Iraq: Present and past," June 12, 2004

I COULDN'T FIGURE OUT WHY THE BOSTON GLOBE would sound Paul Revere's alarm over a new treatment-resistant strain of gonorrhea, when that seems so damning of modern lifestyles. By the eighth paragraph I understood: The Globe's take is that Gov. Mitt Romney's government is the culprit for reducing the health department's budget for the testing of sexually transmitted diseases. Still, whether from good motives or bad (as in Philippians 1:15-18), it's good to have the nation's politically correct epidemic finally outed.

Satan has proved as good as his word. He once said of forbidden fruit, "When you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil," and three chapters into the Bible we have all kinds of knowing we didn't have before: knowledge of misery, fear, alienation, and death.

Next up, knowledge of rapacious venereal disease. My high-school days in the '60s seem Edenic by contrast. We knew only of simple gonorrhea and syphilis (a shot of penicillin would make you right as rain), and only one out of 32 of your classmates had an STD. In 1983 it jumped to one in 18; in 1996, to one in four. And with over 30 new STDs today, 30 percent of them incurable, that's a lot of polysyllables to know. (Amaze your friends by dropping words like condyloma acuminatum.)

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But knowing is a political business in this world. Meg Meeker, in Epidemic: How Teen Sex Is Killing Our Kids, writes that one in five Americans over the age of 12 has genital herpes. (Reread that statistic and let it hit you.) Why the silence? "I think honestly, a lot of teachers and physicians are intimidated by Hollywood and by businesses which seem to have taken over our kids and are selling sex," Dr. Meeker says. This from a woman who used to hand out Depo-Provera like Altoids at her women's college until she started seeing kids come back to her office with cervical cancer and herpes.

I checked out the 10th-grade health curriculum in our district, and page 21 of a 72-page syllabus is the entire year's coverage of all known venereal diseases. Trendy AIDS gets a page to itself (though one in 250 Americans has AIDS, while one in five has a viral STD). But while you were all feeling sorry (or smug) over Africa's HIV woes, "More women died in 1997 in this country of cancer-related illness due to [human papillomavirus, aka HPV, aka 'genital warts'] than died of AIDS," according to Pam Stenzel, founder of Enlighten Communications, Inc., who tells teens that unwanted pregnancy isn't their biggest problem.

A post-Eden knowledge sampling: Chlamydia, a bacteria with no symptoms in 90 percent of the teens who carry it. It brings a 25 percent chance of lifelong sterility the first time you get it, a 50 percent chance on the second, and a good chance of never having children on the third.

HPV: "Even mild HPV infections ... may decrease fertility simply by preventing penetration of the sperm into the cervical canal" (Joe Glickman, M.D.). Infertility has risen more than 500 percent in the 1990s, says Ms. Stenzel. Any connection? (And for those who do manage to conceive, neonatologist Karen Fritz of Philadelphia can fill you in on the manifold effects of STDs on newborns-a whole branch of knowledge in itself.)

Genital herpes is a virus. Read: NO CURE. Undaunted, pharmaceutical companies with questionable ads featuring smiling faces and couples running on beaches are lining up to reduce your pain, burning, and itching during the "prodrome" stage. A sample: "If you are finding your warts or outbreaks are causing you anxiety, you are not alone. As many as 20 million Americans carry the herpes virus and 40 million have the genital wart virus. Our products can help you rid yourself of these." Message: Buy "Oxi-Med "or "ViraDerm," and don't worry.

"Warts No More" (for genital warts) sounded so good in the ad that I almost wanted to contract HPV: "Warts No More is an all natural certified organic treatment proven to eliminate warts without scarring or surgery ... made from 100 percent pure and natural essential oils and plant extracts, grown organically in remote regions high in the North American mountains."

I know a young lady who thinks she just had a thorough STD checkup. She didn't. Detection for HPV (the most common and most contagious of the lot, and a disease that laughs at condoms and the Clintonian notion that oral sex isn't sex) involves a very expensive blood test, and most clinics don't do it.

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