STD: Still in Total Darkness

Your significant other may have more in store for you than just chocolate and flowers this Valentine’s Day. An increased prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) means that lovers this Valentine’s season will need to take extra precautions the next time they get caught up in the heat of the moment.

The problem, however, is not that students are having sex. The problem for many young Americans is a lack of education, information, and sense of urgency about the scope of the STI problem in America.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports at least 20 million new cases of STIs each year in the United States, totaling more than 110 million infections in both men and women. These infections include chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B virus (HBV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human papillomavirus (HPV), and syphilis. About 50% of new STIs were found in the 15-24 year old demographic, indicating a heightened risk for students on college campuses.

Unfortunately, these national trends reflect STI prevalence in Dallas, as well. Though the Dallas County Heath and Human Services reports an STI rate of about 804 infections per 100,000 people (0.804%), about 42% of those infections affect individuals in the 15-24 year age group. This means that almost half of the county’s STIs are centralized in either high schools or college campuses, including UTD and SMU. Come Valentine’s Day, these institutions will become hotbeds for STI transfer in the city.

Students would be foolish to take these statistics lightly, as STIs lead to more complications than just periodic discomfort. Untreated chlamydia and gonorrhea, for example, can cause increased risk of developing chronic pelvic pain, infertility, and fatal ectopic pregnancies for women. Certain infections like HPV can even lead to severe chronic conditions like cervical cancer. Infections of the reproductive tract make it easier to acquire other STIs, too. For example, inflammation caused by several STIs increases the risk of HIV transmission, causing multiple infections at once.

Once you acquire an STI, and depending on the type, your best bet is to seek immediate treatment, such as starting an antibiotic treatment to fight the infection. However, pills are just a short-term solution to help reduce your immediate symptoms. Continued careless sex correlates with a higher risk of contracting STIs, which means adherence to more frequent antibiotic regiments. However, with continued exposure to antibiotics, the bacteria associated with STIs can adapt to become resistant to those pills, becoming more of a nuisance in terms of complications.

Thus, the prevalence of treatments for some STIs may make the consequences of unprotected sex seem as harmless as taking a pill to treat an infection. For many students, this is an easy excuse to throw caution to the wind, but pills only provide short-term help for an STI. Proper treatment oftentimes involves more advanced measures to manage the common complications of STIs.

Unfortunately, the pills and advanced healthcare measures come at a significant cost for both the patient and healthcare system. According to the CDC, treating curable STIs, the most common being chlamydia, costs the US healthcare system up to $742 million each year. STIs requiring lifetime care, like HIV, cost even more due to a need for continued medication and symptom mitigation during the course of treatment. The most common STI, HPV, accumulates further costs due to treatment for HPV-related cancers stemming from initial infection.

For a college student already living on a budget, STIs introduce an unnecessary cost to further burden our financial responsibilities. Diagnostic tests, medication, and follow-up appointments begin to compete with groceries, rent, and gas in student budgets.

However, the health and economic consequences of STIs may not be the worst part about contracting an infection. Each STI is accompanied by negative stigma and judgment. Such stigma gives rise to feeling ashamed of your condition, which may affect your confidence and self-esteem. STIs find a way into your daily tasks by affecting your ability to perform at the best of your abilities.

The health, economic, and psychological consequences of STIs can be intimidating, even frightening. However, the purpose of detailing these complications is not to persuade you to completely abstain from sexual activities. Rather, this information should fill the information gap that exists amongst young individuals and hopefully provide a greater awareness of the consequences of irresponsible sexual activities.

Instead of hiding from the epidemic of STIs amongst young people in America, we should embrace the problem as a call to action and recognize that these diseases can easily be avoided through preventative measures that both limit new infections and reduce associated healthcare costs.

Though the state of Texas commonly promotes abstinence from sex as a preventative method, history and case studies show that promoting abstinence alone cannot effectively stop the transmission of STIs. The government cannot discourage people from having sex without interfering with their private lives. Thus, promotion of abstinence serves solely as a suggestion rather than a mandated, enforceable public health policy. There are, however, many other simple procedures to ensure that you protect yourself from STIs during sexual intercourse. Studies show that using a condom is one of the most effective measures to prevent STI transmission. By providing a physical barrier between you and your partner, condoms prevent the transmission of even the smallest STI microbes.

However, don’t think that condoms have a 100% success rate for STI protection. Condoms are likely to only prevent infections that pass through genital liquids, including gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV. Since these STIs tend to be the more commonly spread infections, condom use is the most efficient means of protecting oneself from STIs. However, STIs that transmit via “skin-to-skin” contact, such as genital herpes, HPV, and syphilis, will not be stopped by condom use.

Another prevention strategy includes reducing the number of sexual partners, which can help you keep track of any possible exposure to STIs. Exercising good judgment and controlling the number of sexual encounters help prevent contact with another individual carrying STIs linked to previous irresponsible sexual activities.

However, some STI related complications, such as the increased likelihood of developing HPV-linked cancer, warrant more preventive measures than just using a condom or good judgment. Complications associated with HPV, such as cervical, penile, anal, and throat cancer, can be avoided by simply receiving the HPV vaccine series. Given that HPV is the most common STI, it’s in every sexually active individual’s best interest to protect themselves from acquiring HPV.

Given the lifesaving potential of the vaccine, it’s unfortunate that the administration of the HPV vaccine has been a hotly-debated political topic for several years. Most conservatives argue that the government cannot mandate administering the vaccine to young individuals. However, the controversy relies heavily on the fact that parents are uncomfortable with the thought of their children being sexually active.

In truth, the vaccine enlists the strongest immune response in young adults and is most effective before an individual ever has a sexual encounter. The vaccine helps stifle the transmission of HPV in an at-risk student population. At this point in your lives, your parents should understand that you live in a sexually active college community where there is a need to protect yourself from STIs. Thus, receiving the vaccine is more of a protective, public health measure than a symbol of government interference with individual health.

While measures to protect yourself during the act are helpful, being tested for STIs is by far the best preventative measure that you can take to help control the spread of STIs. Sexually active individuals must be routinely screened for STIs to make sure that new infections are detected and treated. Fortunately, screening is available close to campus at the UTD Student Health Center, Collin County STD/HIV Clinic, and Dallas County STD Clinic.

Though you may feel stigma associated with an STI, do not be shy or shameful about seeking counseling and care. Understand that acquiring an STI is fairly common in a college-environment and resources are provided to help you quickly overcome an infection. The worst thing to do when you feel symptoms of an STI is to try and hide your condition. In addition to developing more pain and complications, you risk infecting others, including your significant other. STI resources and healthcare workers understand the sensitive nature of infections and are here to provide efficient, sympathetic care.

UTD has always been supportive of sexual health and our campus strives to maintain a comfortable environment for those seeking STI care. With condoms commonly available in the residence halls, you can anonymously obtain protection without the fear of judgment you may have in a check-out line at stores or at the Student Wellness Center. Groups like “PRIDE at UTD” provide online links to local STD testing, counseling, and other resources that are geared towards promoting sexual health. If you think you might have an STI, understand that your school and its students are here to help you rather than judge.

With health, economic, and psychological stakes this high, it’s in your best interest to be well informed about STIs. An awareness and knowledge of infections, trends in transmission, and available resources are your most powerful tools in combating STIs and protecting yourself. By protecting yourself, you offer a level of security to your partner as well. One of the best ways to show you care for each other is to ensure that your relationship is STI-free.

So, the next time bae looks at you with those dreamy eyes, take a moment to ask your partner whether he or she has been tested for STIs. If the answer is “no,” find the willpower to refuse continued sexual activities until you are certain that there is no chance for acquiring an infection. It may be tough in the moment, but you’ll thank yourself in the long-run.