NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Teenagers arrested for juvenile offenses have a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases, so screening these teens soon after arrest may help catch many cases, a new study suggests.
Past research has found relatively high rates of STDs among incarcerated adolescents, but little is known about the STD risk among teens who are arrested and then released.
The new study assessed a pilot program set up in Hillsborough Country, Florida, to offer STD testing to teenagers soon after their arrest, before a decision is made to release or detain them. All arrested teens who were submitting a urine sample for drug testing were asked whether they also wanted the sample tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia.
Researchers found that among more than 900 juvenile offenders who agreed to be tested, 13 percent had gonorrhea, chlamydia or both -- similar to rates that have been found among incarcerated adolescents.
The findings suggest that "a voluntary STD screening protocol is feasible for arrested youth entering the juvenile justice system, and these offenders are at high risk for STDs," the researchers report in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases.
Routine testing and treating adolescences for STDs soon after arrest could have "enormous potential public health benefits," write the researchers, led by Dr. Steven Belenko of Temple University in Philadelphia.
The study included 948 boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 17 who were arrested for juvenile offenses. They gave urine samples while at a central processing center where officials decide whether to release them or to send them to a detention center.
Overall, 10.5 percent of males tested positive for chlamydia or gonorrhea, as did 19 percent of females.
The investigators identified three other statistically significant risk factors for having an STD. These included being female, being black; being sent to a detection center; and having more than three lifetime sex partners, which increased the risk by 4.67-fold, 3.62-fold, 2.32-fold and 2.06-fold, respectively.
Both gonorrhea and chlamydia often have no obvious symptoms, which means that screening can catch many cases that would otherwise go undetected, the researchers point out.
"The asymptomatic nature of most bacterial STDs," they write, "increases the urgency to expand routine STD testing, and prevention programs, at all stages of the juvenile justice system, but especially right after arrest and as youths enter detention."
Right now, the researchers note, "few, if any," processing centers for juvenile offenders have STD screening programs.
SOURCE: Sexually Transmitted Diseases, August 2008.
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