Update 6/20/13: On June 19, the Boston Schools Committee unanimously voted to expand sexual health counseling and condom availability in public middle and high schools. This policy shift comes at a time when the rate of chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, is on the rise, especially among high school students.
At a middle school in Boston, eighth graders are learning about sexual curiosity.
A teacher asks them about where they learned about sex. The students’ answers: school, home, their partners, at health clinics, TV.
These 14-year-olds are part of a sexual health education pilot study at a dozen middle schools in Boston. They're learning about everything from puberty to Sexually Transmitted Infections.
The pilot study comes on the heals of an effort to stop the spread of chlamydia in Boston, where there were more than 4,800 reported cases each year, in the past few years. The majority of the cases were seen in 15 to 24-year-olds.
Anita Berry, the director of infectious disease at the Boston Public Health Commission, said they are targeting middle school students because they tend to feel invulnerable.
“It is not uncommon for adolescents to be in an exploratory phase in their life,” she said. "So, having sexual contact with partner or partners without protection would not be uncommon.”
Chlamydia often has no symptoms, which makes it difficult to detect. Men and women with chlamydia are more susceptible to contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and it can also cause infertility in women.
Most of the newly reported cases of chlamydia have been in young women, according to Dr. Danielle Roncari, the medical director of Planned Parenthood Boston and Family Planning at Tufts Medical Center.
“It's women that suffer the consequences of undetected chlamydia because undetected chlamydia affects infertility among women,” Roncari said. “That's why there's especially a push to get young women tested.”
It’s important for men to be tested so they don’t spread the disease or re-infect their partners.
Blacks and Latinos are also at higher risk for contracting chlamydia, and certain neighborhoods in Boston are hotspots for the disease: Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury have the highest numbers.
“When you have a population that at baseline has many people infected, you don't have to have a lot of intimate contact to be unlucky enough to have had that contact with someone who was infected with Chlamydia and has given it to you,” Berry said.
Berry and her colleagues at the Boston Public Health Commission conducted focus groups in the neighborhoods that showed the highest rate of infection. They found two trends: lack of knowledge about chlamydia, and a higher rate of unprotected sex.
“We find that youth in the focus groups tend to get their information from other youth, who may or may not have the story right,” Berry said. “Or, they tend to Google it, and not every site that the health department would like to come up first, comes up first.”
They found many explanations for the reason young people are having unprotected sex in their focus groups.
“One was believing that they couldn't get infected if they withdrew early during sexual intercourse. Other reasons were if your partner said they were your one and only, clearly they don't have any infection and you don't need to use any type of protection,” she said. “They also felt that they often didn't need protection because their partner was asymptomatic.”
At a Boston School Committee meeting in June, several high school students gave testimony on the need for comprehensive sexual health education in more of Boston’s public schools. Only eight of 32 public high schools in Boston taught the district’s sexual health education curriculum this year.
Thanks to the pilot study, at some schools in Boston, teachers have started giving students information about sexual health, but Boston Public School administrators hope to expand comprehensive sex education to more middle and high schools next year.
The matter will come to a vote on June 19, when the Boston Public School committee will vote on a new wellness policy for the district.