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Stemming an epidemic: Kandiyohi County pilot project aims to engage parents, communities in preventing chlamydia among youths

This image and caption are from an ad campaign that is part of a new initiative by the Kandiyohi County Coalition for Healthy Adolescent Sexuality that urges parents to talk to their children about relationships, health and sex. Kandiyohi County Coalition for Healthy Adolescent Sexuality

WILLMAR — In one of a series of ads that debuted locally this month, two teens embrace while the boy silently wonders, “Should I kiss her?”

The ads are part of a new initiative by the Kandiyohi County Coalition for Healthy Adolescent Sexuality that draws attention to Minnesota’s soaring incidence of chlamydia and urges parents to talk to their children about relationships, health and sex.

“It’s about parents and kids hopefully having the conversation together. It comes back to making responsible choices,” said Dr. Deb Peterson, a family practice physician at Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Litchfield and ACMC’s medical director of quality.

The initiative, a state-funded demonstration project for which Kandiyohi County was chosen last year, could become a statewide and possibly even a national model for other communities looking to stem the rate of chlamydia among teens and young adults.

Minnesota Department of Health officials have been increasingly alarmed by a steep rise in the incidence of sexually transmitted infections, which reached a new high in 2012. According to figures released earlier this month, chlamydia is now the No. 1 reported infectious disease in the state with 18,000 cases last year, mainly among teens and young adults.

This may partly be due to more aggressive screening that’s catching more cases. But observers believe the overall rate also is rising, and it’s extending to younger ages.

As they watched the numbers climb over the past few years, Health Department officials felt it was time to take a new approach, said Candy Hadsall, a clinical specialist in sexually transmitted diseases and infertility prevention project coordinator with the sexually transmitted diseases and HIV section of the state Health Department.

“Our belief was we needed to get communities involved,” she said. “The top-down approach just doesn’t work.”

The project in Kandiyohi County is believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S. that involves a community-based coalition and a plan developed by a local community.

At a series of town hall meetings last fall in Willmar to create a grassroots strategy, “people were very engaged, very concerned for the health of our youth,” said Deb Schmitzerle of Kandiyohi County Public Health, who coordinates the Coalition for Healthy Adolescent Sexuality. “I think we were pretty much in agreement that we don’t want our young people having infections.”

The education campaign, launched this spring, is aimed at giving parents skills in talking to their kids about relationships and sex. A second campaign focuses on building awareness among teens and young adults, especially women, of chlamydia.

Organizers have turned to the social media, text messaging and local health providers, as well as the ad series, to help get out the word. The ad campaign was rolled out this spring and will be repeated in the fall.

Although chlamydia occurs in sexually active people of all ages, the incidence far and away is highest among teens and young adults.

Often it’s symptomless, making it hard to detect, said Dr. Lucio Minces, an internist at ACMC specializing in infectious diseases. “You don’t know you’re infected but it can have a lot of consequences,” he said.

Complications of chlamydia can include ectopic pregnancy and premature labor, he said. It also can lead to female infertility. Left undiagnosed and untreated, it can be spread to sexual partners as well.

But screening and prevention aren’t always easy messages to convey to youths, Minces and Peterson said.

“It’s difficult to talk to teens about long-term consequences,” Minces said.

“The teenage years are risk-taking years,” Peterson agreed. “A teenager always thinks nothing bad will ever happen to them. ... I think they underestimate what chlamydia can do to you.”

One focus of the campaign is to increase Kandiyohi County’s screening rate for chlamydia so cases can be caught and treated earlier.

Medical providers can’t tackle this alone, however, Hadsall said. “It’s way too big.”

That’s where parents come in. Dr. Gabrielle Vencel-Olson, a family physician at ACMC who is on the Kandiyohi County Pregnancy Education for Teens board, said conversations between kids and parents about sex, health and responsibility go “a long way.”

“You may not think that your child listens to you, but your child does listen to you and you have a huge influence in their life and the choices they make,” she said.

Organizers of the campaign said that when parents and kids are able to talk together about sex, it also opens the door to conversations about other risky behavior such as alcohol use.

“If we can make progress here, it will have an impact on overall health,” Hadsall said.

Kandiyohi County’s demonstration project is being watched with interest, she said. “There are people that are looking at this nationally and they’re very excited about the fact that we’ve organized people at this level.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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