Boston health officials and community groups in Dorchester’s
Bowdoin-Geneva section are launching a campaign to quash chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease that is afflicting teenagers and young adults in the neighborhood at an alarming degree.
The rate of chlamydia among Bowdoin-Geneva residents ages 15 to 24 is twice that of the rest of Boston, a statistic that concerns the city public health commission, which has targeted the disease among its three top priorities, along with low birth weight and obesity.
The groups, led by Big Sister Association of Greater Boston, began looking at the problem a little more than a year ago and are now starting to marshal staff, volunteers, and teen leaders to get out the message on prevention.
“Chlamydia is an issue in Bowdoin-Geneva — period,’’ said Mia Roberts, who is leading the effort for Big Sister Association of Greater Boston. “The focus is on stopping chlamydia, which is a gateway to other diseases.”
Chlamydia is the most commonly reported sexually transmitted infection in the nation, which had more than 1.4 million reported cases in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Boston reported 4,805 cases in 2011, or a rate of about 778 cases per 100,000 residents, said Dr. Anita Barry, who heads the infectious disease bureau at the city’s public health commission.
“I’m sure this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Barry.
In the Bowdoin-Geneva area, 719 cases were reported, a rate of 1,454 per 100,000 residents, according to data provided by the commission. Among those 15 to 24 years old, the difference in the infection rate is even greater: 2,350 per 100,000 for Boston as a whole, compared with 6,275 per 100,000 in Bowdoin-Geneva. Women and girls are generally hit hardest by the disease, and statistics for both Bowdoin-Geneva and the city as a whole reflect that, showing that females report contracting chlamydia at a far higher rate than males, according to the health data.
The numbers are startling to youth and health care advocates, particularly with today’s easy access to health data online. Barry said young people often convey a sense of invulnerability as though they believe they will never get the disease. Some refuse to accept that their partners might be having sex with others, which can result in people being reinfected.
“We know that things like having unprotected sex contact and having multiple partners would increase the risk of getting chlamydia infection,’’ said Barry.
And that presents a challenge to officials trying to curb spread of the disease because adolescence and young adulthood are “often a time of exploration, and part of that for many young people is sexual exploration,’’ she said.
Chlamydia is called a “silent” disease, because those who contract it often do not manifest symptoms, but it can cause permanent damage to a woman’s reproductive organs, according to the CDC.
Local health officials have tried to curb the disease. In 2011, Massachusetts approved regulations allowing sex partners of patients with chlamydia to be treated without needing to be tested. And consumer-friendly fact sheets were printed in several languages including French, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese.
Overall, Dorchester had the highest number of cases, followed by Mattapan and Roxbury, according to the city’s health data. West Roxbury had the least number of cases, with fewer than 50 in 2011.
Roberts said Big Sister officials discovered the problem in the Bowdoin-Geneva area while working with the mayor’s office more than a year ago. As they combed through health data to determine which issues were most urgent and should be prioritized, they became alarmed by the number of young people who tested positive for chlamydia.
“When we looked at the volume of data in Bowdoin-Geneva, that’s the one that jumped out at us,’’ said Roberts.
Big Sister, which tried unsuccessfully to get grant funding for the effort, is pushing forward with its campaign and will convene other groups later this month to forge a plan.
The group is hoping to create fliers and brochures to hand out to the public, and volunteers, mentors, and teen leaders are being mobilized to hold presentations and workshops in the community.
The association has linked with the health commission, the mayor’s office, and Catholic Charities’ Teen Center on Bowdoin Street to train teenagers to spread the word on prevention. Officials from Catholic Charities said their teen leaders’ only focus will be stressing the values of having positive and healthy relationships that do not include having sex.
Big Sister said it will provide mentors and target young girls who participate at the neighborhood’s community center.