Statistically transmitted diseases

STDs 01Remember that CDC statistic alleging that one in four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted disease? Before we even knew that the statistic was completely unreliable (its relative standard error was greater than 30 percent), we criticized the media coverage for uncritically parroting the Planned Parenthood talking points about what the study meant. But let's assume that the statistic -- which is frequently repeated as the Gospel Truth -- is true. Let's say that 25 percent of all teenage girls have an STD. Now let's look at this story from

A Pennsylvania school district has such a high number of students with sexually transmitted diseases that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stepped in to track down students at risk for HIV.

It's estimated that 10 percent of the 3,000 middle and high school students in the Delaware Valley School District in Milford, P.A., are infected with an STD -- including one confirmed case of HIV, Times Herald Record reported Friday.

So the CDC claims that 25 percent of all girls have an STD. But they step into a school district when a fraction of that number is determined to be so afflicted? That makes no sense. And rather than media actually being skeptical of the one in four figure, they just seem to report whatever press release comes its way.

The story goes on to explain that parents were notified of the high rates of STD, pregnancy and single case of HIV in a letter sent home. Most of the cases were the human papillomavirus (HPV):

HPV infections are very common, according to the Mayo Clinic. It's estimated that close to 25 million people in the U.S. have HPV infections, which can cause genital warts and related lesions. Some strains of HPV are linked to cervical cancer.

Bruce told the paper she wasn't surprised by the numbers, citing a recent CDC study that found at least one in four teenage girls nationwide, between the ages of 14 and 19, has a sexually transmitted disease.

Didn't it occur to the reporter to ask why the CDC considers this school district to be such a problem if its rates are so much better than the national average? I know math is hard and all, but this seems so obvious.

There's also this line:

The Board of Education is currently revising the health curriculum, which places heavy emphasis on abstinence.

I'll let Brian LeStourgeon, on whose blog I found this story and its analysis, explain one of the problems with this line:

I am both amused and bothered when I catch "news" stories that make a causal connection between rising childhood/teen sexual conduct and "abstinence" education. There are no reliable studies that demonstrate that abstinence education is any less effective than other sex-ed options.

It also matters how you define "abstinence education." Some programs are abstinence-only, others emphasize a preference for abstinence, others include honest discussions of abstinence with other sex-ed information. Often, reporters unquestioningly include anti-abstinence quotes with no context or definition.

The story ends by quoting Dr. Joseph Rahimian an infectious disease specialist at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York:

"Regardless if you think your child is sexually active, getting the HPV vaccine is in the best long-term interest of these young girls," Rahimian said. "I think HPV was always a problem and it is often underestimated. There's no study that abstinence is a highly effective form of prevention for any of these infections."

Um, logically speaking, that last line makes no sense. In fact, abstinence would be the most highly effective form of prevention for all of these infections. This is just weak reporting on display. The original story, while still problematic in parts, is much better.

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