People living in Salt Lake City's Rose Park and Glendale areas, as well as West Valley City, Kearns and Midvale, have the highest rates of new chlamydia infection in Salt Lake County, and 40 percent of the county's most recent cases are in people ages 15 to 29.
That's according to Lynn Beltran of the Salt Lake Valley Health Department. She said parents who believe teens in Utah aren't sexually active are naive. She said there's no data on why people in those particular areas of the county have higher rates of infection than those elsewhere in the valley. The Rose Park area had the highest rate, followed by the Glendale area, West Valley, Kearns and Midvale.
The health department will sponsor two upcoming educational forums on helping parents talk with their children about sex.
Legislative efforts in the past two years, aimed at providing sex education in the public schools, have failed, Beltran said, leaving the burden of teaching children about sex to parents. Beltran said many parents are reluctant to have "the talk," let alone have ongoing discussions about sex.
"We hear from parents that we don't need to teach anything beyond abstinence, but those who work with teens in clinics see the results" when teens don't get factual information about how sexually transmitted diseases are contracted, Beltran said. "Parents may hope teens aren't having sex, but that's not the reality."
Chlamydia infection rates in Salt Lake County have grown by 60 percent since 2003 and have nearly tripled since 2000, Beltran said.
In 2008 — the most recent year for which statistics are available — there were 3,467 new cases of chlamydia reported in Salt Lake County, which represents 56 percent of all the new cases statewide. Though numbers for 2009 are not yet available, Beltran said she thinks the rates have not decreased.
Teens who get information about sex from their peers or the media invariably believe that sexual intercourse is the only way they will get an STD, she said.
"As long as they stay away from intercourse, they think they are fine. But people are getting infected through" other sex acts. "In fact, any intimate skin-to-skin contact where sexual fluids are present is where the disease can be spread."
Beltran said health officials often encounter parents who say, "It's not an issue in my home." But "I don't think any parent can say that with certainty. Do you know where your child is from 2 to 6 p.m. every day? If not, there's a risk."
She said research shows teens want guidance on sexual matters from their parents, "even if they don't act like it. Parents need to be involved in their lives and engaging in these open discussions, even if they're not received by the teen the way you had hoped. In fact, that's all the more reason to have that discussion."
Utah has never done a major study to survey the sexual behavior of teens here, Beltran said, citing "lots of political resistance." But there is a survey done in other states, tracking the onset of sexual activity. That survey shows teens are now sexually active at a younger age and with multiple partners. She said her department relies on the national behavioral risk data to understand what's happening here.
"Technology is certainly driving a lot of their behaviors. Not just TV and media, but the notion of sexting and 'friends with benefits' (meaning uncommitted sex with acquaintances or friends) has just arisen in the past few years," Beltran said.
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Resources for parents
The Salt Lake Valley Health Department will host educational forums to help parents talk with their teens about sex. The forums will be held:
Today from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Northwest Community Center, 1300 W. 300 North, in Salt Lake City's Rose Park area.
Wednesday, Sept. 8, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Sorenson Unity Center, 855 California Ave., in Salt Lake City's Glendale area.
Visit www.slvhealth.org or call 801-534-4600 for more information.