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Chlamydia: A Silent Epidemic

A new study has uncovered alarming information about the most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States that doctors are calling "the silent epidemic."

There are 4 million new cases of chlamydia each year. Researchers reported in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that, out of 300 sexually active girls between ages 12 to 19, more than one fourth tested positive for the disease.

The girls tested had gone to inner city clinics for family planning or infectious diseases. The highest proportion of those tested were fourteen years old.

CBS 'This Morning' Health Contributor Dr. Bernadine Healy said that, by contrast, only 10 percent of young women screened at a university campus and would test positive for chlamydia.

Chlamydia, a bacteria, can be contracted through sexual intercourse. The bacteria infects the lining of the reproductive tract, the cervix, uterus, and fallopian tubes. The disease can also affect the bladder and the urethra, and can also cause a urinary infection.

Healy, Dean of the Ohio State University School of Medicine, said that the lack of obvious symptoms is why the disease is called silent.

"Eighty percent of the time a woman doesn't know she's having this," Healy said.

For those who do notice a reaction, the symptoms can include vaginal discharge, burning while urinating, bleeding between menstrual periods, a low-grade fever, and pelvic pain.

Men can get chlamydia as well, and both men and women can pass it on to their sexual partners. For men, symptoms include itching or burning sensations around the opening of the penis while urinating and discharge.

Chlamydia, though not deadly, is highly destructive.

In women, the disease can maim the reproductive tract. In men, it can cause sterility.

Seventy percent of the time, when a woman is infertile because of blocked fallopian tubes, it's thought to be related to chlamydia, Healy said. There is also a high incident of tubal pregnancy, pelvic pain, and chronic pelvic pain linked to chlamydia.

The illness should not be ignored, Healy said, since mothers afflicted with chlamydia can affect their babies at the time of delivery.

Newborns can get conjunctivitis, which can lead to blindness and they can contract pneumonia.

Healy says that there are simple tests that can be done to detect chlamydia. One involves collecting a small amount of fluid from the cervix with a cotton swab. The second method uses a urine sample. Healy warns that a pap smear does not detect the illness.

Chlamydia can be treated, and usually doctors will prescribe antibiotics. Healy says that people who have been infected should have their sexual partner tested as well. Although it can be treated, it can also be contracted more than once.

Besides abstinence, women and men can prtect themselves from getting chlamydia by using condoms and limiting their sex partners. Those who are infected should avoid sexual contact with others.

Healy says that all of these healthy sexual practices will help prevent the spread of the illness.

"That means knowing your partner, asking questions of your partner about their sexual history," Healy said.

Healy suggests that for young girls in their early teens, abstinence is "still a viable choice."

"Parents and their teenagers have to talk about the fact that responsible sex is going to protect their whole lives."