With Chlamydia Cases On The Rise, Massachusetts Considers Expanding Sex Ed

(Credit: Shutterstock)

About a dozen middle schools in Boston are participating in a pilot program that requires them to provide comprehensive sexual health instruction to students in the hopes of effectively preventing the spread of chlamydia. That sexually transmitted infection, which is the most commonly reported in the country, is hitting young people in Boston particularly hard.

In the last several years, there have been more than 4,800 new cases of chlamydia reported each year in the Boston area. Since most of those cases occurred among young people between the ages of 15 and 24, city officials are trying to figure out how to target that demographic with the sexual health information they need to better protect themselves. The Boston Public Health Commission conducted focus groups among the neighborhoods with the highest rates of infection, and found that young people are putting themselves at risk mainly because they don’t know very much about chlamydia — which often doesn’t present obvious symptoms.

“We find that youth in the focus groups tend to get their information from other youth, who may or may not have the story right,” Anita Berry, the director of infectious disease at the Boston Public Health Commission, told WGBH News.

Teens reported that they were having unprotected sex because they believed several misconceptions about how STDs are spread. “One was believing that they couldn’t get infected if they withdrew early during sexual intercourse,” Berry explained. “Other reasons were if your partner said they were your one and only, clearly they don’t have any infection and you don’t need to use any type of protection. They also felt that they often didn’t need protection because their partner was asymptomatic.”

Only eight of Boston’s 32 public high schools taught the district’s sexual health education curriculum this year. But some school districts voluntarily began including more information about sexual health in their curricula when they saw the results from Berry’s focus groups. And school administrators don’t want to stop there — they hope to expand comprehensive sex ed to more middle and high schools, and they’ll vote on a new district-wide wellness policy this week.

And their efforts may soon be bolstered by new statewide standards. A measure currently being considered in the Massachusetts legislature would require all of the state’s public school districts to include comprehensive, medically accurate sex ed material in their health classes. Massachusetts does not currently have any requirements that public schools must provide sex ed. Although some schools do opt to provide sexual health information, others choose to teach abstinence-only curricula that don’t include information about birth control.

“It’s talking about having good, factual educational courses in schools that deal with sexuality… I think this bill is at least 30 years overdue,” Massachusetts state Rep. Ellen Story (D) said.

Boston students agree. Earlier this month, a group of high schoolers gave testimony at a school board meeting to explain why they want more comprehensive sexual education resources in more health classes across the city. Teens have taken matters into their own hands in other states, too — in Ohio, another place with rising STD rates, high school students are working to better educate their peers about safe sex.