At least one teen gets an STI every day

At 15, Jack (not his real name) had it all - money, looks and grades from a good school.

But the teenager also ending up getting something nasty - a sexually transmitted infection (STI)

His parents were too busy for him. So Jack paid prostitutes to visit him at home up to three times a week.

He did not like to use condoms and never thought of protecting himself against STIs when he had sex with them.

The Secondary Three student, who went on to score four As and two Bs in his O levels, eventually contracted gonorrhoea, a common bacterial STI.

Jack isn't the only teenager to have contracted an STI. Every day, more than one teenager here contracts an STI.

The latest figures from the Department of STI Control (DSC) Clinic show that, between 2006 and 2010, the number of STIs reported among 10- to 19-year-olds peaked at 829 in 2007.

It has fallen since then, but the figure remains at close to two cases per day in 2010 (626 in total). Jack's case is one of the youngest that professional counsellor John Vasavan has come across in 20 years of practice.

The DSC Clinic has seen STI cases in patients as young as 13.

Mr Vasavan said Jack, who looked big for his age and could be described as "dashing", was diagnosed when he experienced some swelling and discharge.

However, it never occurred to him that it was an STI.

Mr Vasavan said Jack sought him out through his own contacts, but he was oblivious about STIs.

He said:"He was only worried about getting someone pregnant."

The teen, an only child who lived in landed property, could afford to pay prostitutes $100 to $150 a few times each week.

He had a generous allowance from his parents, who had no time for him as they were busy running their business, said Mr Vasavan.

Mr Vasavan has not spoken to him recently as Jack stopped going for counselling after he was treated for his STI at the Communicable Disease Centre.

The last they spoke was in 2009, after 11/2 years of consultations.

Mr Vasavan hopes the teen has turned over a new leaf after his brush with gonorrhoea.

But Jack's woes may not be over.

A lifelong possibility of relapse

Gonorrhoea can be treated, but Jack faces a lifelong possibility of relapse.

The 2010 Communicable Diseases Surveillance in Singapore report by the Ministry of Health also states that the diagnosis of an STI is a "sentinel" event which indicates unprotected sexual activity.

That means patients with one STI are at increased risk of getting other STIs, including the human immuno- deficiency virus (HIV), which can lead to death. The most commonly diagnosed STI among boys aged 10 to 19 in 2010 was gonorrhoea, a DSC Clinic spokesman said.

For girls in the same age group, the most common STI in 2010 was chlamydia.

Although curable, chlamydia can damage a woman's reproductive organs.

Chlamydia is even worse for teenage girls whose reproductive system has not fully developed, said Dr Tan Kok Kuan, chief medical officer at Dr Tan & Partners.

The infection can put such teens at a greater risk of uterus or fallopian tube infection, and also increases the risk of infertility.

Dr Tan, whose team has a special focus on fighting the HIV epidemic and combating the spread of STIs, said he has seen an increase in STIs among those aged below 20.

While the number of confirmed cases at the clinic is still low at about one or two each month, there has been a jump in the number of teens getting STI screenings.

Back in 2005, he would get maybe one every three months. Today, there are two or three such screenings per week.

To Dr Tan, this means more young people are having unsafe sex.

He added that condoms are not as protective as people think. For example, a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that condoms only prevent 80 per cent of HIV infections.

The DSC Clinic said teens should be encouraged to protect themselves from most STIs (including HIV) and unwanted pregnancies by abstaining from sex till they are in a committed adult relationship like marriage.

Dr Kit Ng, a family psychologist and director of The Centre For Psychology, said it is common for the young to take risks when it comes to sex, as with anything else.

"That is why 30 to 35 per cent of young people who have sex do not use condoms," he said.

While they may think that activities such as having paid sex and watching porn are purely recreational, Dr Ng warns that these can get addictive quickly when individuals continue to be compelled to engage in them.

Factors that lead to reckless sex

A DSC Clinic spokesman said factors that further cause the young to be reckless with sex include:

  • Poor parenting
  • Peer pressure
  • Increased Internet access and social media where social contacts can be made
  • Getting paid for sex to purchase material goods
  • Televised programmes that portray teen sex as a norm

Ms Karen Choo, 41, a former secondary school and polytechnic counsellor, said today's teens are more exposed to sexual material through the media.

Coupled with their natural curiosity, it is a "recipe for disaster".

Although schools teach sex education, it is quite generic, said Ms Choo, who now works as a personal trainer.

She added that if students are too shy to ask their parents, or if they come from overly conservative backgrounds, they end up being ill-informed.

"They may seek info on the Internet, but they will find much more on the thrill of sex, rather than how to protect themselves from STIs, which is seen as 'boring'," she said.

The easy availability of devices like smartphones and the lack of restrictions on what can be accessed is also an issue, she added.

Ms Choo said the young are also strongly influenced by their peers.

Even if they do not go online to access sexual material, they will be influenced if their peers do so.

Ms Choo has started giving her nine-year-old son "mini biology lessons" about reproduction.

"There is no need to be shy. I ask my husband to help teach as well," she said.

Working mother Julia Lam, 49, who has a 19-year-old daughter and a son in his 20s, said one of her strategies in guiding her children is to get to know their friends.

She also teaches her children how to take responsibility for their actions through rules like curfew time.

"They have to know that with freedom comes responsibilities," Mrs Lam said.

Need help?

Need help?

DSC Clinic health information hotline: 6295-2944 (24 hours)- Pre-recorded messages in four languages

DSC Clinic AIDS/STI helpline: 1800-252-1324- Mon to Fri: 8am to noon; Tue to Thu: 1pm to 5pm; Mon and Fri: 1pm to 7pm- Confidential counselling

Action for AIDS hotline: 6254-0212- Mon to Fri: 9am to 6pm- For information and counselling services on all aspects of AIDS/HIV

This article was first published in The New Paper.