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Thousands of teens infected by unprotected sex

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Tens of thousands of adolescent girls and boys, many of them as young as 12 years, are infected with a serious sexually transmitted disease that can cause infertility.

Research presented to the Australasian Sexual Health Conference late last month showed that chlamydia, a bacterium that can cause pelvic inflammatory disease in women and urethritis in men, has become the most commonly reported disease in the country, with 82,707 cases diagnosed last year.

But lead researcher Professor David Wilson, from the Kirby Institute, cautioned that the number of undiagnosed cases was probably far higher, and could amount to more than 400,000 people carrying the infection.

“It is likely that there are five times more Australians with chlamydia that is undiagnosed, who may be at increased risk of infertility and other reproductive health problems,” Professor Wilson said.

In a particularly worrying assessment, he warned that as many as one in every 20 young people aged between 15 and 24 years have chlamydia – a claim supported by the findings of a separate study conducted by the Burnet Institute that find high rates of chlamydia positive tests in young teenage girls.

Drawing on data from more than 286,000 chlamydia tests conducted by 15 laboratories between 2008 and 2010, the researchers found that 13 per cent of girls aged between 12 and 15 years were diagnosed with chlamydia – the highest proportion of positive tests of any age group.

By comparison, 12 per cent of girls aged between 16 and 19 years had the disease, and 8 per cent of women aged between 20 to 24 years.

The surprising result has been described as a wake-up call for health authorities and parents about the rate of sexual activity among young adolescents, and the risks that many are running by having unprotected sex.

But lead researcher Carol El-Hayek hastened to add that the relatively high proportion of 12 to 15 year-old girls who tested positive for chlamydia most likely because those tested displayed symptoms or were seen as being at sexual risk, whereas tests were more routine for girls and women in the older age groups, and were likely to involve more negative results.

Among males, the proportion of positive chlamydia tests was highest for boys aged between 16 and 19 years (15 per cent), compared with 9 per cent for those in the 12 to 15-year age group, and 13 per cent among men aged 20 to 24 years.

“Clearly, Australian adolescents as young as 12 are vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases, but the younger they are, the less likely they are to be tested,” Ms El-Hayek said. “We need a better understanding of the sexual risk practices of young people in order to minimise their risk and ensure they have access to testing and treatment.”

Adrian Rollins