SARA VANDEN BERGE Managing Editor

The country is agog over a recent federal study that shows one in four teenage American girls have a sexually transmitted disease.

Researchers with the Center for Disease Control found that 26 percent of the 838 girls tested are infected with one of four types of STDs.

No word yet on how the boys are doing.

Meanwhile, mom and dad are wishing their baby girls would get back to playing with Barbie’s townhouse and making cookies in the Easy Bake. Our little darlings are growing up faster than we expected and it ain’t pretty.

It appears that teenage girls are woefully unprepared in all things grown up, especially when it comes to sex. Parents spend a lot of time worrying that teen sex will lead to unwanted pregnancies and heartache. Now we know it can lead to disease.

Perhaps it’s time to take a second glance at what our kids are being taught at school and in the home.

The study which set off the panic button involves girls ages 14 to 19, and tested for four infections: human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause cervical cancer and affected 18 percent of girls studied; chlamydia, which affected 4 percent; trichomoniasis, 2.5 percent; and genital herpes, 2 percent.

Only about half of the girls in the study admitted to having sex, but among those who said they were sexually active, the rate was even more disturbing - 40 percent had an STD.

So what now?

Do we toss our pig-tailed babes a condom and teach them how to use it or do we keep preaching abstinence? This country has spent about 1.5 billion on abstinence-only programs, which are clearly not working.

Not that promoting abstinence is a bad thing. It’s not. Still, a frank chat might just be what the doctor ordered. We have to assume that telling our kids to “wait” might not always work, in which case, Plan B should kick in. We have to teach our kids how to protect themselves if they do have sex. Teens need to hear the dual message that STDs can be prevented by abstinence and condoms.

After all, knowledge is power, and for the sake of our daughters, we need to arm them with complete and truthful information.

Then, we need to stop being so naïve. We have to assume that our kids might engage in pre-marital sex, similar to what generations before us have done. (World War II boys and girls weren’t just holding hands during furlough.)

Meanwhile, uncomfortable as it may be, we need to have a couch-squirming talk with our girls. We need to do a better job of explaining that one night in the back of a car — and a couple of bad decisions — could affect their long-term health.

And boys, that goes for you too.

SARA VANDEN BERGE is Managing Editor of the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at 254-968-2379, ext. 240.