updated 2/24/2004 1:15:37 PM ET 2004-02-24T18:15:37

Teenagers and young adults account for nearly half the cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States though they make up just a quarter of the sexually active population, according to the first extensive national estimate of STDs among young Americans.

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Researchers at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 9.1 million cases of eight sexually transmitted diseases occurred in people aged 15 to 24 in the year 2000. There were 18.9 million new cases overall, said the report in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, a journal published by the not-for-profit Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Another article by CDC researchers that appears in the same journal, released Tuesday, estimates the lifetime medical cost of those 9.1 million cases at $6.5 billion. “The overall cost burden of STDs is so great that even small reductions in incidence could lead to considerable reductions in treatment costs,” the article said.

Three diseases — human papillomavirus, trichomoniasis and chlamydia — accounted for 88 percent of new cases in 15-to-24-year-olds, the researchers said.

Untreated, HPV can cause cervical cancer or genital warts. The health effects of trichomoniasis, a parasite, are not well known. Chlamydia can lead to infertility.

Lack of symptoms poses obstacle
Both studies said that the lack of symptoms in these and other sexually transmitted diseases is a major obstacle to diagnosis and treatment. They called for increased screening for the diseases and other preventive measures, including notifying sex partners.

Other diseases included in the study were: gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes, hepatitis B and HIV.

A separate report on STDs, also released Tuesday, said that only comprehensive sex education — that teaches both abstinence and birth control — will reduce their spread.

While calling abstinence “the surest way to avoid STDs,” the report said that improved sex education, including instruction on proper condom use, is essential.

“Most youth do not use condoms every time they have sex, and most have not been taught the correct way to use a condom,” said the report by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina. The report was based on the work of a group of health experts and a separate youth panel.

'We've got to get real about sex'
Citing statistics that more than half of high school students have had sex, 17-year-old panel member Shawn Carney of Phelps, N.Y., said, “We’ve got to get real about sex to deal with STDs.”

The Bush administration is proposing to double the amount of money it spends on “abstinence, only” programs for teens. One organization involved in the study was Advocates for Youth, a group that has clashed with the Bush administration over sex education.

The CDC acknowledges that condoms are effective against the spread of HIV, an incurable disease that is often fatal and requires extensive treatment, and in reducing the risk of gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis.

But since 2002, the CDC has toned down its emphasis on condom use in favor of abstinence.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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