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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  • Brian Walden

    I think there’s a big tangled logical mess in here. Most sex education debates pit abstinence against condoms, at least when it comes to disease prevention. HPV throws a wrench in this argument because when used 100% correctly abstinence prevents HPV while condoms even if they never malfunction do not offer complete protection. If HPV is the big problem, how much contraception education is going to help the kids?

  • emily

    Perhaps the doctor’s quote should have read “no study that abstinence education is…”? I wonder if he originally made the statement as it is written (in which case it makes no sense, as you note), or whether the word “education” was inadvertently dropped from it in transcribing the quote or typing the story. Either way you would think that a copy editor somewhere might have scratched their head at that quote.

  • Mollie


    Unless he’s a doctor clueless as to how diseases are spread, I figure he meant to make a claim about sex education. So yes, I think the reporter or copy editor should have asked for clarification and included [education] in brackets to help the reader.

  • Dave

    I agree with emily.

    math is hard

    For reporters, evidently very hard, and not just in the persistence of this “one in four” meme and failure to note that 10% is less than 25%. Many a story cloned from a press release from a conservative social-policy think tank has included sham statistics tending to exaggerate some social problem, and never have I seen a reporter call them on it.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Math is hard, and apparently business is harder for many in the press. A simple game of “follow the money” reveals that the pharmaceutical industry stands to gain the most if the government requires teenaged girls to get an HPV vaccine. And which industry is a leader in lobbying?

    I can’t tell which is worse, lazy reporters or physicians who roll over for the pharmaceutical industry, regardless of what is in the best long-term interests of their patients. Both make me ill.

  • Julia


    Girls who never have pre-marital sex and are later faithful in marriage can still get HPV from a cheating husband. All girls should be vaccinated for their own protection.

    Back in the day, everybody entering the hospital was tested for syphillis, even nuns. It made no sense to decide who was likely to have it or not – the aim was to wipe out the disease and wholesale testing simplifies things.

    Vaccinating all girls instead of trying to foretell whether they will eventually marry faithful husbands – makes sense to me. Vaccination does not work as well when the girl is older. Too bad the vaccine doesn’t protect against all varieties of HPV, but better to be protected against some rather than none.

    Do you know anybody who has died of uterine cancer? It’s not pretty.

  • Chris Bolinger

    All girls should be vaccinated for their own protection.

    Your statement assumes that the vaccine is the only effective way to deal with HPV and that the vaccine has no significant side effects. Neither assumption is valid. There is means to kill HPV, but the vested interests in the vaccine don’t make money on that. As for side effects, I consider death a fairly severe one, and people have died from the vaccine.

    Vaccinating all girls instead of trying to foretell whether they will eventually marry faithful husbands – makes sense to me.

    That’s fine for you, but when the government mandates that every girl must have a vaccine with notable potential side effects when there is another (and arguably better) option, then our freedoms are being infringed.

    Too bad the vaccine doesn’t protect against all varieties of HPV, but better to be protected against some rather than none.

    That’s like swinging a hammer at a hornet’s nest.

  • Ryan Balton

    I live in the community that this FOX News story was about… and it’s a load of sensationalized BS picked up from a nearby daily paper. The CDC is not “stepping in”… the story only came up because the school district sent a letter to parents who think that STDs and teenage pregnancies don’t exist at all in a small town like ours. The letter only indicates that the CDC has identified to the school district a student who has HIV and that the CDC and other public health services, NOT the school district, is responsible for recording partners the HIV positive student has had sexual relations with.

  • Jennifer

    The stories of deaths and adverse reactions are from hPV vaccine are greatly exaggerated. There is no evidence of any dise effects other than soreness and other mild symptoms. The “vaccine as a cause of death” reports were culled from VAERS reports by anti-vaccine groups and are far from scientific.

  • Joseph Rahimian

    Just to clarify, what I told Foxnews is that teaching abstinence does not translate into a significant decline in rates of STD’s, based on the medical literature. Obviously if you are actually not having sex, you wont get an STD, but simply telling young people not to have sex is inadequate as a mode of prevention, for the overall population. -joseph rahimian