Report of STDs Among Girls Concerns Moms

One out of every four teenage girls is infected with a sexually transmitted disease, according to a recent study by the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute on Health. This week's Mocha Moms, along with pediatrician Dr. Marilyn Corder, discuss the study and its impact on minority girls.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with a few members of this mother's support groups each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today, we want to talk about a subject that we know will be sensitive for many people, especially for parents of teens. The subject is sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs. A recent study by the Federal Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in four girls in the U.S. between the ages of 14 and 19 are infected with at least one sexually transmitted disease.

This disturbing news has caused a lot of soul searching among health professionals and caregivers. We thought it was important to talk about, but I have to caution that some of our conversation may be explicit. So please keep that in mind because the moms, as you know, keep it very real. The Mocha Moms - Jolene Ivey, Davina McFarland, and Cheli English-Figaro. We're also joined by guest mom, Dr. Marilyn Corder. She's a pediatrician and clinical professor of pediatrics at both Howard and George Washington Universities. Welcome ladies, moms.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Mocha mom): Hey, Michel.

Ms. DAVINA MCFARLAND (Mocha mom): Hi, Michel.

Ms. CHELI ENGLISH-FIGARO (Mocha mom): Hi.

Dr. MARILYN CORDER (Pediatrician & Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, Howard & George Washington University): Hi.

MARTIN: So I do want to ask, how surprised was each of you by this information? Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: It was just alarming. I mean, I actually couldn't believe it, although it does look like the research is pretty right on. So I guess parents really have to use this as a wake up call.

MARTIN: Dr. Corder?

Dr. CORDER: Well, it saddens me, but I'm not surprised because in the past 10 years, I have heard middle adolescents and middle-school goers tell me about what they're doing. So we just now need to address it.

MARTIN: Cheli?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I was stunned, disheartened, frightened, basically. Still having a hard time digesting it.

MARTIN: Davina, what about you?

Ms. MCFARLAND: Frightened is a good word, because that's what I was. I was frightened for my sons and my daughter.

MARTIN: And there's more. The study also finds that African-American teenage girls were the most severely affected - that nearly half of the young African-American women tested in the survey were infected with an STD compared to 20 percent of young white women and a comparable figure for young Latino women, about 20 percent. Dr. Corder, I have to ask you, what do you think this means?

Dr. CORDER: Well, what this means is that the sexual activity is starting much younger, much earlier. And along with that, we talk about irresponsibility in terms of safe sex. We have to ask the questions earlier, and address it, and provide the care.

MARTIN: The reason I'm fascinated by this is that the teen pregnancy rate has dropped precipitously, particularly among young African-American girls. So I think a lot of people were cheering at that news, thinking that it meant that the safe sex message had been getting through, that girls were taking more steps to protect themselves from pregnancy. So, I guess the answer is no. That is not the case.

Dr. CORDER: Well, they're on birth control pills, and they're on the patch. They're on the shot, but unfortunately, there's this myth of - now that I'm on this, it's going to protect me from getting one of the STDs. And I tell them no, it's not. That only protects you from becoming pregnant. So we have achieved the decrease in pregnancy rate. We've cut that down, but now we have to address the STDs.

MARTIN: One point of clarification, I want to point out that a survey we did earlier this year, and which we talked about on this program, indicated that the birth rate among 15 to 19 year olds has started to rise again after some 16 years of decline. Are teenagers routinely tested for sexually transmitted diseases? If a teenager comes to you for a check up, is that a routine part of the exam these days?

Dr. CORDER: In my practice, yes. But unfortunately, there are many providers who will assume, oh she's 12, she's 13, certainly she's not sexually active, so I'm not even going to ask that question. Ask, and you'll get your answers.

MARTIN: And I wanted to just, briefly before we bring the other moms back in, this study encompassed four diseases - human papillomavirus, chlamydia, herpes, and trichomonas. Are these all similar in their affects, or do they have different consequences that we should know about?

Dr. CORDER: Trichomonas is more of a nuisance STD that causes a frothy discharge, fishy odor, and it's irritating, but it doesn't cause a sequelae such as what chlamydia would do. Chlamydia will effect and inflame your fallopian tubes, and that can lead to sterility and infertility down the road if untreated. It also will lead to severe pain - bent over, I heard, type of pain. The HPV, we talk about that. That's a whole other show in terms of the Human Papilloma Virus that has been related to cervical cancer. And the other one was Herpes. And of course you know, we talk about that all the time. Again, that's something that spreads rapidly if you are having sex, and you have an active lesion. And that, down the road, can cause problems with a baby born through that canal in terms of birth defects, death, as well as infections.

MARTIN: Jolene, why do you have trouble believing this?

Ms. IVEY: I guess I'm surprised because I have to look at my own family, and I have teenagers. I have an 18-year-old, and a 15-year-old, and a 12-year-old who thinks he's 15. You know what I mean? But, you know, I guess maybe I've got my head in the sand, but I don't see any evidence in my family of that kind of activity. My 18-year-old, now I can't really say, he's in college now, and I don't see him every day, but before I send him off, you know, I was like look, if you do it, and I'm not saying you're not going to do it, but wrap it up. I mean, really! And he just looked at me like I was crazy.

MARTIN: But what message did you emphasize? Pregnancy, or disease, or both?

Ms. IVEY: What I emphasized to him was treat girls with respect, OK? Don't go having sex with some girl and then not call on her the next day, and don't have sex with someone and not use a condom. Don't talk about a girl with your friends about whatever's going on in your relationship. He seemed to listen to all of that, and it's something that we've talked about for years. I mean, of course the older they get, the more detail that you have.

MARTIN: The reason, again, I'm surprised about this, and Cheli, I'd love to hear from you, is that again the 14 to 19 year old group is the group that grew up with HIV/AIDS as part of the national conversation. And so, to me it's like smoking. How could you not know what smoking is about, Cheli?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Well, I agree with Davina, and I agree with Jolene. I think you do have to look at what you put in the child. I know I have two daughters. The oldest one is seven, so what do I know? Not much about this yet. But I do know that as she grows up, we tell her how much she is valued, how much she is loved, how important she is, and I know that I want her to believe that her future is more important than any knucklehead boy that might come to her and say, you're beautiful, or I love you. I don't want her to have to prove anything to any boy, thereby risking her future, in any way.

So I think that's the conversation that I have with my daughter, even now. Of course it doesn't relate to sex, but if I can somehow get her head big enough that she doesn't give a freak about a boy, and there's nothing a boy can offer her that's going to make her compromise her future, then I think that's at least the path I'm going to take.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. And I'm speaking with the Mocha Moms about teen girls and new information about sexually transmitted diseases and the prevalence in the population about these diseases among teen girls. Dr. Corder, I'm sorry, I think we're not doing our job if we don't talk about this racial thing. I think we have to talk about this racial difference. I'd like to get your take on why do you think this might be.

Dr. CORDER: Well, one of my thoughts on it would be many of our girls are looking for love, looking for attention. We're very sexual - the movies, the media, and sometimes the way we carry ourselves at this age in this time is not self-respecting. And we feel that it's OK to be used.

MARTIN: But I must tell you then in terms of you're talking about media images, I can see as many images of white, and to a lesser extent, only to a lesser extent because I think Latino women are less present in the media right now, although that is certainly changing, I can see plenty of pictures of white women being portrayed in ways that display their sexuality. You know, selling trucks, motorcycles, you know, escort services, anything you want to name. So in terms of sort of displays of overt sexuality, doesn't seem too different to me.

Dr. CORDER: Well, if nothing else, I think that the African-American young ladies in this study may have been more honest in answering, as well as some of the questions on how you get the STDs or what an STD is. Throat gonorrhea is real, OK? And if that's what you're doing and then that person has it on their genitalia, then you're still spreading it. So it's how you're asking, and what I always tell the parents, I say to them, you're not around your child all the time, and what I want you to do is begin to talk to your child.

Many of our parents didn't talk to us, and we can't keep our heads in the sand, we can't say well, they're not ready. They're ready before you think they're ready. And they're going to hear it, sometimes fourth, fifth grade, more than what you heard in eleventh grade, so you have to.

MARTIN: Do you think that - and others jump in if you have sort of questions and ideas, I'm wondering if part of it is that the way we talk about sex is also no, don't, stop, as opposed to what's best for you in terms of the mechanics of it, this is how it works, as opposed to what an ideal sexual relationship should be?

Ms. IVEY: You know what I tell my kids, Michel? I've always told them as soon as they were up to talking about sex. I'm very honest with them. I say you know why people have sex? Because it feels good, that's why! It feels real good! But you know what? You're not old enough. And so, I make it clear that number one, yeah it's fun. Don't lie about it because if you do then they're not going to believe anything you have to say. But if you say, yes it is a good and wonderful thing in so many ways, but it ends up being really bad for you if you do it at the wrong time and the wrong circumstances with the wrong person. So as long as I think you can be honest with them about the good parts of sex, then they'll listen to you more about the bad parts.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: I agree with Jolene. You do have to be very honest with them, and I have a friend, and I've adopted this caveat in my house, everything has an age. So when she discusses sex with her daughter she says, well you know, blah blah blah, this and that about sex, but you won't be ready for that until you're 23, and there's always an age.

So I think you know parents have to have honest, real conversations with children about sex and sexual activity, seriously. But don't always just go, no! You know, I don't like that. I think sometimes we make the mistake of only teaching abstinence. And nothing's wrong with abstinence, but if that's all you teach, then these kids think well, if I don't have intercourse, but I do something else, that's OK.

MARTIN: Dr. Corder, at what age should people start talking about sex with their kids? Especially parents who don't want other people talking to their kids about sex. I mean, a lot of people are very sensitive about where kids get their information. So given that you're your children's first teacher, at what point would you like to see parents talking to kids about sex, and how?

Dr. CORDER: By seven or eight years old, you should be discussing information about sex. Now, conversations start at this age with their peers. Because I'm not sure if you're aware, but our girls are in puberty by seven, eight years old, and sometimes menstruating by nine or ten years old. So we need to educate according to what we're seeing in the trends. And even though they may not be as mature, you know, you continue to take it to the next level and the next level as they mature, but begin to have the comfortable conversation at home.

MARTIN: What do you do when you're freaked out? I mean, the fact is sometimes you know kids pop up with this stuff, and you're freaked out. And you don't answer properly, and you go - what do you recommend?

Dr. CORDER: Definitely can't just freeze up. You just got to sort of take a deep breath, and answer the question as honestly as you can.

MARTIN: Has that ever happened to you? When you found yourself startled by a question, and you had to regroup - what did you do master your own emotions?

Dr. CORDER: You mask your own emotions. That's what you do. You mask them because otherwise, you will close the door of communication, and they'll never ask you another question.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Unfortunately, maybe I shut the door because I was shocked. But I think I recovered because, you know, I said afterward, you know why that freaked me out? I'm going to tell you why, because I worry that you might involve yourself in some sort of activity too soon, and I know what that would do.

Ms. IVEY: Well for me, you know there's not too much that freaks me out, so it's kind of fun to me. I don't know...

MARTIN: That's why we're calling you to have that conversation with our kids.

Ms. IVEY: I'd be happy to. You know I had a whole bunch of teenage boys to the house, you know, well constantly. But one particular day, I could overhear them talking to each other, and they were using slang words for certain body parts. And it just irritated me, so I walked in, and I said I want you boys to know we do not use words like that in my house. It is a penis! Do you understand me? Use the correct word! And they all kind of went, oh my G-d! You know? She said penis in front of us. And I'm sure they just thought that I was going to be mad at them for talking about sex at all, and what I did is make them use the correct term, so they were all pretty freaked out. But my kids just thought it was funny.

MARTIN: Let's talk about the messages that we'd like to hear fathers giving on these questions.

Ms. MCFARLAND: Well, just like Cheli said and Dr. Corder said earlier, you know a lot of times girls are getting involved in sexual activity because they're looking for love from somewhere else. So I think the message that the dad gives is that you're loved and valued here by me, so you don't need to go outside to look for that. And you know, when you feel that you already are a person of value, you're never going to allow yourself to be devalued by anyone.

MARTIN: Any other final thoughts?

Ms. IVEY: Well you know, there's a website I've gone to before that's really good, and it's called theantidrug.com. The big theme there is just that parents are the anti drug. We're the ones who stand between our kids doing a lot of things they shouldn't do, whether it's sex, or drugs, or - well, we won't include rock & roll in that, but you know what I mean.

MARTIN: Because rock & roll is awesome.

Ms. IVEY: It's not my thing, but whatever.

MARTIN: But what I'm hearing you say, Jolene, is that don't be ashamed to go looking for a script if you don't already have one in your head. If you're having trouble thinking about how to talk about this, don't be ashamed to go looking for a script.

Ms. IVEY: Get help, you know. Look on the internet, Talk to your friends. Come to Mocha Moms.

Dr. CORDER: Call your pediatrician.

Ms. IVEY: But it's hard. It's hard.

MARTIN: Are you open to that conversation Dr. Corder?

DR. CORDER: Oh, yes!

MARTIN: Somebody says I don't know how to talk about this, because I think a lot of times people see you all as being so busy that this is not something that they're necessarily thinking to call you about.

Dr. CORDER: I share my numbers. I tell them, let's go talk, because they're looking for a way to talk to their youngster, and that's something that health providers can help you with. And we have a saying in our office - a saying that says, is sex worth dying for?

MARTIN: Cheli, you were going to say something?

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Oh, I agree, because it is really hard. It's really hard. My son, my oldest is 14, and Dr. Corder is our pediatrician. And her husband Fred sees my son, and he talks...

MARTIN: But that actually raises a question. Do you recommend a male pediatrician for a male child when they get to a certain age?

Dr. CORDER: If you have that available in your practice, but you know it's interesting. It's like some young men want to see the boy doctor or the male doctor, and then some of the guys say, you know? I want to talk to a lady. So if you have that flexibility, and you give that option, that's even better because they'll open up even more.

MARTIN: Interesting. Good point. Davina, final thought for you?

Ms. MCFARLAND: Be honest all the time, and talk all the time. You can't hear a story in the news and suddenly say oh today, I'm going to talk to my child about STDs. That has to be an ongoing conversation, and the lines of communication have to be open between you and your child all the time, not just when something's hot in the media.

MARTIN: The Mocha Moms, Davina McFarland, Cheli English-Figaro, and Jolene Ivey, and our guest mom Dr. Maryland Corder, a pediatrician and a clinical professor of pediatrics. They all joined us here in our Washington studio. Thank you ladies, moms.

Ms. MCFARLAND: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. ENGLISH-FIGARO: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

Dr. CORDER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Do you have a question for the Mocha Moms? It can be anything. How to plan a great children's party, or how to blend children into your family. To learn more about the Mocha Moms, hear previous conversations, and add your questions to the Mocha Moms' mailbag, please go to our website at npr.org/tellmemore. Search for the key words Mocha Moms.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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