The following post was written by Katie Boos, MPH, Multimedia and Public Information Programs Manager at AIDS Action Committee. Katie oversees STD 411, Maria Talks, AIDS Action’s Hotlines, and other media-based prevention programs.
April is STD awareness month , a time when public health practitioners like me gear up to spread the word about STD prevention, testing, and treatment.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STD), or infections (STI) if you are using public health speak, have had a fascinating and disturbing social history, similar and yet different from HIV. And while we know more now about the science of STDs than ever before, discussions about them still contain judgmental and fear-based messages and are often wrapped up in morality wars around the topic of sex.
So you can imagine how excited I was to attend the National STD Prevention Conference last month and find that the focus was on STD prevention within a context of sexual health promotion. Hallelujah! AIDS Action has long addressed STD efforts in this way–from community forums to one-on-one prevention counseling, to information campaigns, we are dedicated to having honest and informative conversations about STD transmission, prevention, testing and treatment within a context of holistic health promotion. And we need to keep it up.
The disparities in rates of STDs are worrisome. Women, African Americans, and gay and bisexual men continue to be disproportionately affected by Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis and herpes across the US. This also holds true in Massachusetts. Stigma, discrimination, misinformation and limited access to care are contributing to this disparity and there is research to support this.
But while many STDs can be cleared with antibiotics (Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis) or suppressed with antiviral (herpes), if they go untreated, they carry significant health risks–from infertility, to neurological problems, to greater risk for HIV acquisition and transmission.
In fact, that last tidbit is particularly important to the work that we do at AAC. STDs can put someone at greater risk for getting and transmitting HIV. Take genital herpes for example–it’s transmitted through skin-to-skin contact with infected areas and mucous membranes (think mouth and genitals). It’s extremely common and women are at greater risk of contracting it due to the surface area of the vagina. Herpes is a virus that damages cells and cause areas of inflammation (sores). For someone who is HIV negative, this creates an opening or a pathway where HIV can enter and thrive because of all the white blood cells that have come to the area damaged by herpes. For someone living with HIV, herpes can make someone more infectious (or more likely to transmit HIV to a sexual partner) due to complex biological mechanisms.