U survey reveals increase in STDs

Craig Gustafson

More University students than ever are infected with a disease they can’t see, feel or even understand.
A 1998 Boynton Health Service survey revealed that human papilloma virus, also known as genital warts, is on the rise among University students despite an increase in students abstaining from sex.
The virus will be among many topics discussed during Boynton’s 1999 Healthy Sexuality Week beginning today.
The survey revealed 3.8 percent of University students have genital warts, including 2.5 percent who contracted the sexually transmitted disease in the past year. The 1998 survey used a broad base of University graduate and undergraduate students.
The virus can be transmitted by mere skin contact, so conventional birth control methods have limited effects. The disease is highly contagious and incurable; even the most highly used birth control methods are no match for the virus.
Although warts in genital areas are the most common indicators of the disease, University physicians say that, in many instances, there are no symptoms.
“If you have sex with more than a couple of people, then your chances (of contracting the virus) become close to 100 percent,” said Jim Rothenberger, a faculty member in the School of Public Health.
Marilyn Joseph, Boynton medical director, estimates that two-thirds of all sexually active people have been exposed to the virus.
But even as the infection rate increases, chlamydia still reigns as the king of University STDs, affecting one out of 20 students.
However, genital warts is the most commonly treated STD at the University because it cannot be treated in one doctor’s visit. Unlike chlamydia, which can be cured by taking a pill, genital warts have no complete cure. Medical creams and laser surgery are two techniques used to combat the disease.
“There is no effective treatment,” Joseph said, noting that people are less likely to go to the doctor if they have a disease they can do nothing about. This results in a lower number of reported cases.
Using safe sex methods will not guarantee protection against the virus. For instance, a condom still allows genital contact, all that is needed for virus transmission.
But while condoms might not prevent disease, they can help.
“People die with their seat belts on,” said Dave Dorman, a Boynton health educator, emphasizing there are no guarantees when it comes to STDs. But that is bad news for a large segment of the University population.
The Boynton survey also revealed that 36 percent of students use condoms as their regular birth- control method.
A female condom is the best available protection for preventing the virus because it minimizes skin contact, Joseph said.
An annual Pap smear is recommended for women because it is the only way to detect the virus when there are no symptoms.
Rothenberger said there are 92 distinct virus strains. Some are related to cervical cancer, genital and anal lesions and adolescent skin warts. Some strains can be a pre-cursor of skin cancer.
The Kaiser Family Foundation released a study that showed 250,000 women a year worldwide die of cervical cancer caused by the virus.
Risks of contracting lifelong diseases are one of the reasons younger people are choosing abstinence.
“Studies have shown more high- school students are not having sex,” Rothenberger said. “It’s kind of anti-‘American Pie.'”
One such study is a nationwide freshman survey conducted annually at UCLA. That survey showed approval of casual sex and support for keeping abortion legal are at a 30-year low.
The Boynton survey found a similar trend at the University: 42 percent of University students remained abstinent over the past year.

Craig Gustafson covers the Medical School and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070.