Threat Of Disease Does Little To Change Sexual Habits Study Shows Students Aren't Taking Precautions

October 28, 1990|By Staff writer

Some folks just won't listen. Despite the increasing incidence of AIDS, syphilis, chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases, too many people still are not taking even basic measures to protect themselves, said Deborah Middleton of the county Health Department.

"Studies that have been done nationwide on high school and college students show they are not, basically, as an entire group, changing their behavior," said Middleton, who directs the AIDS and sexually transmitted disease program.

In Carroll, she said, "We are still seeing people having multiple partners and sex without the use of any kind of protection against sexually transmitted diseases.

"I know because I do the clinics, and I interview the patients and I hear what they tell me about the partners they have," Middleton said.

People treated at the Health Department's free, weekly sexually transmitted disease clinic give Middleton names of those they may have infected or who may have infected them. The department then notifies these people, confidentially, to seek treatment or testing for the diseases, which sometimes have few or no symptoms.

If gone unnoticed and untreated, diseases such as syphilis can cause brain and heart damage, leading to death. One of the most common diseases, chlamydia, can render victims sterile without so much as a symptom to warn them to seek treatment. Except for AIDS, most of the diseases can be cured if caught early. The Health Department offers free and confidential testing.

AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, is the most deadly sexually transmitted disease, but others are more common. Middleton said the same protection works for all of them: * Abstinence from sex is the only foolproof protection from catching AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases.

* The next best thing is a monogamous relationship.

* If a person is going to have sex, the best protection is a latex condom with a spermicide, Nonoxynol-9.

Even though condoms and spermicides offer good protection, many sexually active people don't use them, Middleton said.

"People, no matter what age, never think something is going to happen to them," she said. "Sometimes, no matter how much we tell them over and over again, they're just not hearing the message. Or they have misconceptions about the information we're giving them."

For example, Middleton said, some people wrongly believe that having sex just once without a condom won't give them a disease or that oral contraceptives protect against disease. In fact, she said, birth control pills offer no protection from disease.

"Or they believe if you have multiple sex partners, but they're all 'nice,' you won't get a sexually transmitted disease," Middleton said.

The definition of nice, she said, can include coming from a good family, having good hygiene or being well-educated.

None of those "nice" qualities protect from disease, she said, except, possibly, education about how to keep from getting sick.

"The only thing we have right now is education, education and more education. That's the only weapon we have," Middleton said.

But what if even education doesn't work because people won't listen?

"We're never going to have 100 percent believe what we say. Even if we prevent one person from being infected with a sexually transmitted disease, then we're successful," she said.

Teens and young adults, the age groups that often feel most removed from death, are especially vulnerable to the diseases, Middleton said, because of their behavior.

"This is the first generation that's really had to deal with a deadly disease based on their decisions and life choices," Middleton said.

Young people are more likely to have several sexual partners, compared with older adults who often have settled down to a monogamous relationship, she said.

Also, young people more often use drugs and alcohol, she said, which can cause them to make poor decisions resulting in multiple partners or intravenous drug use, another way to catch AIDS.

Students at Western Maryland College said awareness of safe-sex practices varies among them, even though condoms are available free throughout the campus.

"My friends aren't that ignorant about it," said sophomore Lisa Rossignol. "I think everybody is (using condoms). There's a big concern."

Will Dator, also a sophomore, said he thinks that while few students abstain from sex because of disease, they do use condoms and limit their partners.

He said bringing up the subject of condoms was not awkward for him and his girlfriend, because they had already dated for a few months.

But another student, a freshman who asked not to be identified, estimated that half the students he knows don't use condoms.

"I use them," he said. "I had a course in high school, so I know all about (sexually transmitted disease)."

A feeling of immortality is probably the main reason some of his friends have unprotected sex, he said.

"I guess they have to learn for themselves when they mess up. They have to learn the hard way," he said.

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