Wrap it up: Real protection against infection

by Beacon Staff • March 26, 2008

Genital human papillomavirus, chlamydia, genital herpes and trichomoniasis are four worries college students could do without. Unfortunately, according to study released earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control, women between the ages of 14 and 19 are among the most likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease.

April is STD Awareness Month, and the study, unveiled at the 2008 National STD Prevention Conference, attempts to bring a new level of consciousness to young women in the United States. At least one in four teenage girls between these ages has at least one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases, according to the study. It examined the combined national prevalence of STDs among young women and also looked at the overall trend of STDs in adolescent females.

However, the definition of young is changing for adolescents choosing to engage in sexual activities. Jane Powers, director of Health Services at Emerson, said the new data was not a shocker.

"I guess it doesn't surprise me because the age of sexual activity is going down," she said. "Middle school kids are becoming more sexually active, if not with intercourse then definitely with oral sex. That's something that definitely needs to be looked at."

Nicole Gerber, former co-host of the Emerson radio talk show Intercoursing, said that the recent study is proof that girls and boys are having sex at a younger age.

"If that's the case we definitely need to work harder to raise more awareness about either protection like condoms and vaccines like Gardasil," she said.

Freshman Orion Wilson said the number of girls, and the young age at which they start obtaining STDs, is frightening to hear but at the same time is to be expected.

"It's pretty scary, but it doesn't really surprise me that much considering how many people are having sex," the film major said. "It's about knowing what's out there and making sure to protect yourself. You have to know what the deal is. It's about being responsible and not being a jerk about wearing a condom."

According to a press release from the CDC provided by spokeswoman Jennifer Ruth, Genital human papillomavirus, or HPV, is the most commonly transmitted disease among the age group surveyed. The CDC Web site states that approximately 20 million Americans are currently infected with HPV, and another 6.2 million people become newly infected each year. That means that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire HPV at some point in their lives.

Most people who become infected with HPV do not even know they have it. The STD may appear in the form of genital warts in its low-risk form, but the virus will not often show symptoms until it has developed into an advanced form of cervical cancer.

As the statistics continue to climb, the CDC urges individuals to get vaccinated and get tested. Gardasil, distributed solely by Merck Co., is the only vaccine currently developed to prevent cervical cancer, precancerous genital lesions and genital warts.

The HPV vaccine is recommended for girls 11 and 12 years old and is given in a series of three injections over a six-month period. This new treatment targets types of HPV that cause up to 70 percent of all cervical cancers and about 90 percent of genital warts. It will not, however, treat existing HPV infections or their complications, as there is no cure for HPV. For this reason, the CDC recommends that all women take the drug and consistently go to a doctor for PAP examinations.

Freshman Kassandra Sundt, who has labeled herself "anti-Merck," said she doesn't feel the shots are the solution to the rising rates of adolescent STDs. Because Merck is the only company that distributes the vaccine, Sundt believes they may be taking advantage of their customers.

"I'm holding off on the vaccination personally because I don't want to be the guinea pig," the radio major said. "I don't like the idea of doctors pushing this vaccine on so many girls when it's only been out for a little while. I'm just suspicious. Chances are, if by the time I graduate, it still looks good, I'll probably get it, but I don't like the idea of rushing into putting chemicals into my body."

Powers said while women can access a prescription for the HPV vaccine through campus health services, Emerson does not keep the drug in stock due to its steep retail price ranging from $120 to $160 per dose ($360 for a full series of three).

"I've seen it as high as $180 per dose," she said. "We don't stock it here because it is an expensive vaccine."

Other colleges in the Boston area are also hopping on the HPV vaccination train. Harvard University, for example, will be holding a Gardasil clinic April 1 for students who have not received the vaccine.

Recognizing the steep cost of the vaccine, HUHS has provided significant savings for students enrolled in the Student Blue Cross Blue Shield Plan. Harvard students covered by this insurance provider can receive treatment for $25 per dose. Those without insurance, however, will pay $154 per shot but may be able to pursue reimbursement from their own insurance plan.

At Emerson, however, the college's insurance program does not cover any vaccines. Students in search of the shot may receive a prescription for Gardasil from the practitioners at the Center for Health and Wellness to be picked up at the pharmacy of their choice for the retail price.

The vaccine is then administered by a CHW clinician during one of the posted immunization clinic dates on campus. Fortunately, Emersonians with insurance are not charged an administration fee. For those without, some private insurers cover the cost of the vaccine if a receipt of the dose is submitted to the student's insurer.

"I don't like the idea of doctors pushing this vaccine on so many girls when it's only been out for a little while. I'm just suspicious."

Kassandra Sundt, freshman audio/radio major

"I'm sort of appalled that Emerson claims to not have enough money or resources to be able to fund part of the vaccination themselves," Gerber said. "I think, if anything, the safety of their students should be top priority for things that they put their own money towards."

But Powers said Emerson is working to change this procedure. The CHW is currently exploring the option of developing a relationship with Merck Co.

"Right now, they're the only manufacturer of the HPV vaccine," she said. "We're looking to set up an account with them so that we can get it out at somewhat of a discounted price for students."

While some ladies feel the venereal vaccine is risky business, freshman Paul Calotta feels distributing the vaccine will help to educate young women about the potential diseases they face.

"Considering they start distributing it at age 11, when girls are first entering puberty, it seems like a good transitional time to help get that information out there," the screenwriting major said. "I think that's a good plan, especially if they know it can prevent such a common disease."

The type of sexual education teens receive plays a large role in the debate about the prevention of the transmission of STDs as well.

Calotta also emphasized the necessity of getting the word out about sexual protect

ion. He said his sexual education in high school was less than adequate, and said the approach that public schools take is very different from some of the private Catholic schools he has heard about.

"Some go as far as to not tell you anything about sex, and so it becomes a big mystery and people are scared of it," he said.

It is this fear and lack of knowledge that Sundt feels is to blame for the sudden increase in STDs.

"Teenage girls' parents aren't going to want to talk to them about it, especially dads," she said. "The problem really goes back to abstinence-only education. Young men and women need to learn how to prevent these problems from happening for the stats to go down."

Gerber said the only reason Emerson has not made the vaccine mandatory is because there are people who believe doing so would promote promiscuity among young girls.

"These girls are already having sex," said Gerber. "They're not afraid of it, so giving them the vaccine isn't going to make them more likely to go out there and have sex, it's just going to make them more protected in case they do."