Sexually transmitted diseases have been known for hundreds of years. We notice their presence in literature, art work, and historic texts. Although the situation has improved significantly in the last few decades, sexually transmitted infections remain a subject of some shame and embarrassment. The unfortunate result of this reality is that each year millions of people are infected with preventable infections, which can have painful consequences.
Although in years past the terms sexually transmitted disease (STD) or venereal disease (VD) have been acceptable, the term sexually transmitted infection (STI) is now preferred. This is largely because an individual can be infected—and infect others—without having a disease. Regardless of the name, all of these terms refer to infections transmitted by means of sexual behavior or activity. Common STIs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, HIV/AIDS, human papillomavirus (HPV), syphilis, trichomoniasis, and viral Hepatitis.
Most STIs affect both men and women, but for many, the health problems they can cause are more severe in women. STIs in pregnant women can cause harm to the baby and can be transmitted through child birth and breast feeding.
Many STIs do not display symptoms immediately after transmission, and some may not exhibit symptoms at all or may display symptoms that could be easily confused for other physical ailments. This leads to greater risk of transmitting the disease to another sexual partner. If untreated, some STIs can lead to infertility, cancer, chronic pain, and even death. Yet statistics suggest sexually active adults and young people worldwide largely overlook this reality.
The prevalence of STIs is staggering:
More than 1 million people acquire a STI every day (World Health Organization).
In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 19 million new STI cases each year (CDCNPIN).
Worldwide, STIs rank in the top 5 disease categories for which adults seek health care (WHO).
American young people aged 15-24 acquire half of all new STDs each year (CDC, 2012).
1 in 4 sexually active adolescent American females have an STI (CDC, 2012).
Chlamydia and gonorrhea cases are highest in Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 (CDCNPIN).
STIs in some cases can be curable with proper antibiotic treatments. Currently, syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis are considered curable STIs. Viral infections such as Hepatitis B, herpes, HIV, and HPV (the most common STI) are incurable but can be managed with various treatments. Vaccines have also been developed for Hepatitis B and HPV, which can successfully prevent transmission of these diseases.
One of the main approaches to limiting the spread of STIs is to encourage the use of condoms and practices of “safe sex.” The proper use of condoms can prevent transmission of many STIs, but uncovered areas are still susceptible—thus they are not completely effective protection. Part of the prevention measures must also involve discussions of healthy sexual lifestyles.
Attention to STI prevention and education has increased with the pandemic of HIV/AIDS infections over the last few decades. Programs have increased to educate people on the nature and transmission of sexual infection and to encourage safer sexual practices, both through the use of condoms and through behavioral and attitude changes. With HIV/AIDS reaching crisis levels in many sub-Saharan African nations, these programs are becoming vital.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Do you or anyone you know have (or had) an STI? What was that experience like? How did you respond?
How would you feel if you found out you had contracted a sexually transmitted infection? How would those feelings/reactions be different if the infection was curable or incurable?
What do you think should be done to encourage healthy and safe sexual practices—and curb the spread of STIs?
How would you define healthy sexuality? How do you think your culture’s view of sexuality contributes to sexual problems such as STIs?
In some cases (as is the situation in many HIV infected African communities), heterosexual, faithfully married women (or men) contract sexual diseases through their spouse’s sexual escapades, either before or after their marriage. How should our reaction be different to their situation? Should it be different?
Sexually transmitted infections are occurring at alarming rates, perhaps reflecting poor sexual decisions as a result of an overly-sexualized, overly-indulgent culture. Many cases may also arise out of an “it wouldn’t happen to me” sort of attitude.
With modern medical advancements, many of these once-devastating diseases can be cured, managed, or even prevented. We should not rely on these as a safe-guard for unhealthy or foolish decisions. Instead, we should focus on prevention through developing healthy lifestyles and a healthy view of sexuality.
We must discuss this issue with our young people, who are contracting STIs at an alarming rate. If we want to make a difference in this area, we must throw away the taboo often associated with sexual topics and have frank conversations with young people about sex and sexuality.