Florida Department of Health data indicate that Alachua County has the fourth-highest rate of STDs of the state’s 67 counties and that STDs are most prevalent among youth aged 15 to 19 years. The two more common diseases are chlamydia and gonorrhea. In response to the high rates, Teresa Mercado-White, health education program consultant at the county health department, and colleagues organized a campaign to reach out to adolescents and college students since STDs were also prevalent among 20- to 24-year-olds.
Mercado-White recruited high school students to send text “blasts” to friends about sexual health and STDs every morning for 30 days, beginning April 1, the start of STD awareness month. The texts included information about STD transmission, testing, and treatment as well as websites, phone numbers, and area facilities that offer free testing. Individuals who received texts could text back their questions about sex, and Mercado-White and her team responded within minutes. A University of Florida junior, who volunteers at the health department, also participated by sending texts to 15 to 20 of her close friends and is posting the text messages on her Facebook page.
Mercado-White spoke recently to about 25 students on the University of Florida campus. Instead of simply telling them to practice safe sex, she used an exercise to emphasize her point and instill fear about what can happen if they do not. She illustrated the point by having five volunteers sip water from a glass, spit into the glass, then exchange glasses, and drink again. Those who drank would receive cash collected from the audience. None of them drank. She explained that they had values, and they needed to use those values in their sex lives as well. Mercado-White commented that abstinence alone is not relevant for the students as they consider it unrealistic. She reasoned that not discussing sex is not an option, as students are being exposed.
Rebecca Tanner, a health educator at the county health department, contends that part of the problem is that our culture is over sexualized and teens are very vulnerable to it. She noted that certain ZIP codes are “hot spots” for STDs in Gainesville. How to broach the subject of sexual health with a partner is one issue with which individuals have difficulty and another is how to talk about it with a physician, particularly for the younger age group. Stacy Shiver, manager of the STD program at the Florida Department of Health, said that practitioners are encouraged to screen youth under age 24 for STDs, but they may not always do it.