Oral sex jumps among young

Study in city shows percentage more than doubled from '94 to '04

May 10, 2006|By DENNIS O'BRIEN | DENNIS O'BRIEN,SUN REPORTER

Following a national trend, oral sex is on the rise among teens and young adults in Baltimore.

Studies of records from 1994 and 2004 show a sharp increase in the proportion of young patients at the city's two health clinics who reported having oral sex.

Among males ages 12 to 25, the percentage who acknowledged having oral sex jumped from 16 percent to 32 percent over the decade, said Emily Erbelding, a co-author of the report and chief of clinical services in the Baltimore City Health Department's sexually transmitted disease program.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about the sexual habits of Baltimore's young people might have implied that HIV, which causes AIDS, could not be spread by oral sex. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV can be spread orally but only in very rare cases.
The Sun regrets the errors.

The rate among females of the same age jumped from 14 percent to 38 percent, she said.

As part of the medical histories they provided on their initial visits, patients were asked whether they had engaged in oral sex during the previous 90 days. The questions were asked at the city's eastern clinic in the 600 block of N. Caroline St. and the western facility in the 1500 block of North Ave., Erbelding said.

There were 2,598 first-time patients at the city clinics in 1994 and 6,438 a decade later, an increase Erbelding attributed to the expansion of city medical services.

The study was intended to help physicians stay informed about health issues affecting teenagers, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, city health commissioner. "This isn't something that should be thought of as a harmless activity," he said.

The report, released yesterday at a national conference on sexually transmitted diseases in Florida, doesn't discuss reasons for the increase, Erbelding said.

"More research is definitely needed so we can understand teenage choices and teenage behavior better," Erbelding said.

But experts say the increases might stem from a preference for oral sex because it avoids unwanted pregnancies and carries a minimum risk of potentially deadly consequences.

"People have adopted oral sex as a safer form of sex in the age of HIV and AIDS," said Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, director of sexually transmitted disease prevention and control at the San Francisco Department of Health.

In a recent study, Klausner and a team of researchers analyzed the health histories of 239 gay men who engaged in oral sex exclusively over six months. They found that none of the participants had contracted HIV.

"We can't say there's zero risk. But we can say ... the risk is very, very, very low," Klausner said. "Other studies also have found the risk to be very, very low. But unfortunately, we're still faced with case reports from individuals who claim that's the way they were infected."

While it might not spread HIV, oral sex can transmit other diseases, including syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and herpes, said Dr. Ronald O. Valdiserri, an expert on sexually transmitted diseases and a deputy director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

But many teens are ignoring those risks, said Bill Albert, a spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

"Maybe we've done a decent job of trying to avoid teen pregnancy, but not avoiding the potential health risks associated with these other activities," Albert said. "There's no question but that among some teenagers, oral sex is not an intimate behavior but a casual way of hooking up with somebody."

More teens are having oral sex than sexual intercourse, studies have shown. A report by the National Center for Health Statistics last year found that 55 percent of all boys ages 15 to 19 and 54 percent of girls the same age acknowledged having oral sex some time in their lives. By comparison, 49 percent of the boys and 53 percent of the girls reported having intercourse.

The National Survey of Family Growth, as it is known, surveyed 2,271 teenagers between March 2002 and February 2003, said William Mosher, the statistician who analyzed the results for the National Center for Health Statistics.

Differences between the city and federal results could be attributed to different age groups being surveyed with a slightly different question, Mosher said. The federal survey asked teens whether they had oral sex anytime in their lives, while the city survey focused on the previous 90 days.

"The results are not inconsistent with each other," he said.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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