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New Push Against STDs Is Urged

Health: Treatment costs Americans $17 billion a year. Yet no national battle plan exists. A report outlines the problems.

November 20, 1996|LESLIE KNOWLTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — The Institute of Medicine is calling for a broad-based national effort to reduce the enormous burden of sexually transmitted diseases, which cost Americans about $17 billion each year.

In a 300-page report on STDs released Tuesday, the institute noted that there is no effective national system to combat STDs, even though five of the 10 most common diseases reported to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year were STDs.

Though STDs are largely preventable, about 56 million Americans may already be infected with an incurable STD.

STDs can lead to serious health problems and death. Furthermore, the presence of untreated or incurable STDs in the body dramatically increases both infectiousness of existing HIV and susceptibility to HIV transmission.

The report, "The Hidden Epidemic: Confronting Sexually Transmitted Diseases," notes: "STDs are a hidden epidemic that is difficult to track, treat and prevent because these diseases often are symptomless and many people--including health professionals--are uncomfortable discussing them."

Currently, primary responsibility for tracking and preventing STDs is handled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including the CDC, and state and local health departments. But it is critical that the entire community, especially private-sector organizations and clinicians, assume more responsibility for STD prevention, the report says.

To improve public awareness, the institute's report recommends a giant national campaign to be led by high-profile leaders, including sports figures and elected officials.

According to the report, effective STD prevention also requires greater responsibility on the part of health insurance plans, which generally do not place a high priority on the diseases. And publicly funded STD clinics, which vary widely in quality, scope, accessibility and availability of services, need improvement.

Special focus should also be placed on educating and treating adolescents, who make up one-quarter of all new STD cases diagnosed annually.

Dr. Judith Wasserheit, director of the CDC's Division of STD / HIV Prevention and one of the scheduled speakers at today's news conference here to discuss the report, says part of the problem in the United States involves "societal will."

"We don't seem to have a lot of difficulty talking about sex in order to sell cars, barrettes or books, but we seem to have a lot of difficulty talking about sexual health," she says.

The institute's report was released in conjunction with the results of an STD-awareness survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which sponsored the institute's report together with the CDC and others. The survey of 707 Americans ages 18 to 64 found an alarming ignorance of key STD facts. When asked to name STDs, only 23% of respondents mentioned chlamydia, the nation's most common STD with 4 million new cases annually.

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