DOUGHERTY CO., GA (WALB) - There is a health crisis in our community, and it's with our youth.
Year after year, the number of teenagers contracting sexually transmitted diseases is increasing.
And, not just STDs, but HIV.
At a health fair targeting college-age students, everything from the information, the giveaways, and a game helping attendees navigate the fair is geared toward their generation and the health problems they are encountering.
"This has been an experience," said Darton Freshman, Kamree Dixon.
But more young people are contracting STDs than ever before.
Looking at the numbers
2015 data from the Centers for Disease Control's Surveillance Report shows that Georgia ranks in the top 10 in STDs like Chlamydia (6th) and Gonorrhea (8th).
And, Georgia has the 3rd highest lifetime risk of its residents being diagnosed with HIV.
1 in 51 Georgians will become infected with HIV.
Dougherty County ranks near the top spot in all STD cases
According to the 2015 Surveillance Data courtesy of the Southwest Health District, compared to 159 Georgia counties, Dougherty County has high rates of Chlamydia (2nd), Syphilis (7th), Gonorrhea (16th) and has the second highest rate of HIV diagnosis in the state.
There is a predominance of African American teens contracting STDs, but health officials stress they are seeing spikes in all races and in all zip codes.
And guess what?
Of all the new STD cases in Dougherty County, 70% are in young people.
"I would rank it as a 10, and that's because it's among our youth," said Southwest District Health Epidemiologist Jacqueline Jenkins.
Jenkins and her team are shared this startling information with community stakeholders, including a recent visit to the county commission, where commissioners widely appeared shocked.
"Everyone should be alarmed, parents should be alarmed, churches should be alarmed, 4-H Clubs, Boys Clubs, everyone. This is a total effort here, a community effort to get involved. The health department-- this is too big for them," said Anthony Jones, Commissioner District X.
The health department is enlisting help, right where it's needed most.
Creating the task force
"Frankly, it's a little overdue," said J.D. Sumner.
Sumner, Dougherty County School System's Public Information Officer, sits on the newly formed HIV-STD Task Force.
"We recently revamped our, for lack of a better term, sex ed policy," said Sumner.
Middle school students, whose parents don't opt-them out of the wellness education, learn about risky sexual behaviors, the dangers of STD and HIV and how to make better choices.
Sumner admits the program alone isn't the solution.
"Ultimately, the ball for this issue rests with parents first. We are having to play that role because many parents aren't. We would ideally want these discussions to be happening at the household, preferably at a younger age, but the reality is this is not happening. And the numbers back that up," said Sumner.
Where can you go for help?
When someone is diagnosed with a STD or HIV, they can contact the county's HIV/AIDS prevention and assistance program.
"They call me the condom man, here comes the condom man. I am always out trying to educate as much as I possibly can," said Adolphus Major, who is both a HIV-positive client, as well as the lead client advocate for the New Beginnings Program at the Southwest Health District.
"It's a lot of hush hush going on. A lot of stigma of being positive still goes on very strongly here," said Major.
It's the hush that has health officials most worried.
"We have clusters of HIV among our youth. So overall, their rates aren't that high (for HIV). But, what is really alarming for us and concerning for public health is that we can have one case, and as we investigate, we get all these contacts. And, they are all teenagers, they are all high school students," said Jenkins.
And, stakeholders think the first step toward reversing the STD health crisis is reaching young people where they are a captive audience, at their schools, at their youth clubs, even at their churches, arming them with an education they need to make make better health choices.
"Let's stop burying our heads in the sand, and talk about it," said Sumner.
"We have to do something. We have to figure out how to reverse this trend in Dougherty County. Number one is how to get our teens to reduce their risky sexual behaviors," said Jenkins.
Members of the HIV-STD Task Force believe the trends can stop, even reverse.
They point to Dougherty County's teen pregnancy rates, which are on a decline, three years running.
Those who have joined the task force are:
- Dougherty County School System
- Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital
- Network of Trust
- Albany Area Primary Health Care
- Albany State University and Darton College
- Albany Technical College
- Turner Job Corp
- Quest for Change
- Project Stop
- Girls Inc.
- Public Health
Health officials said kids have been taught how to avoid pregnancy.
They just aren't getting the facts straight on avoiding sexually transmitted diseases.