The good news: Many sexually active teens are successfully preventing pregnancies in Colorado and La Plata County. The bad news: Sexually transmitted diseases are a growing problem among high school students, according to a recent report.
Statewide, the teen birth rate has decreased 61 percent during a 10-year period, from 2007 to 2017. According to the most recent figures, the teen birth rate is 15.5 births per 1,000 teens, according to a report by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Trailhead Institute.
The teen birth rate is even lower in La Plata County at 12.1 births per 1,000 teens.
But at the same time, across the state and in Southwest Colorado, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases has been rising since 2013 among teens, according to state health department data.
Low birth rates, particularly in La Plata County, have been driven by the use of long-acting reversible contraception, such as intrauterine devices and hormonal implants, that are effective and convenient, said Tiffany Switzer, director of prevention services at San Juan Basin Public Health.
“You don’t have to remember to take a pill every day,” she said.
The increase in sexually transmitted disease could stem from greater awareness about the importance of getting tested regularly, she said.
It is possible the diseases are spreading because teens are not receiving comprehensive sexual education, said Alison Macklin, vice president of education and innovation with Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.
“If young people are only getting access to contraception, they are not getting that holistic access to the information, so they are not understanding that whole picture of how to protect themselves from all of the risks associated with sexual activity,” she said.
Across the state, gonorrhea rates among teens 15 to 19 have increased 30.4 percent from 248 cases per 100,000 in 2016 to 322.9 cases in 2017. Chlamydia rates increased 7.2 percent from 1,641 cases per 100,000 in 2016 to 1,756 cases per 100,000 in 2017, according to state health department data.
In Southwest Colorado, the rate of chlamydia was 1,546 per 100,000 and the rate of gonorrhea was 174 cases per 100,000 in 2017, state health department data show. The Southwest Colorado data include La Plata, Montezuma, San Juan, Dolores and Archuleta counties.
Sexually transmitted diseases have been on the rise among the general population in Colorado for years, but teens are at particular risk because of stigma surrounding the diseases, concerns about confidentiality and limited access to health services and contraception, according the report.
It is also possible some teens believe if they use contraception of some form, such as a birth-control pill or long-acting reversible contraception, they are protected from sexually transmitted diseases, Macklin said.
Public health officials don’t know if the use of long-acting reversible contraception is contributing to the spread of sexually transmitted disease, said Vanessa Bernal, a spokeswoman for the state health department.
A bill pending in the state Legislature would tweak the sex-education requirements in the state and could help students who are having sex by teaching them about consent and how to have conversations with their sexual partners about disease and condom use to prevent transmission, Macklin said.
“If you are going to be engaging in sexual behaviors, you should be comfortable having those conversations,” she said.
Health classes and therefore sex education are not a graduation requirement in Colorado. However, schools that provide sex education have been required since 2013 to make it comprehensive sex education.
House Bill 1032 would make several changes, including making consent education a requirement, prohibiting the shaming of non-heterosexual relationships and ensuring members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are taught self-acceptance, according to the draft bill.
It would also provide $1 million in funding for schools to provide sex education.