STD Month: Knowing is Half the Battle

STD Month: Knowing is Half the Battle

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It's true what they say. Knowing is half the battle. Being aware that STDs exist, being educated about them, knowing the best ways to avoid them, knowing the best treatment options and knowing how to avoid transmission are very valuable, sometimes life altering, things to know.

Chlamydia is a curable infection caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. It can be transmitted during vaginal, anal and, although less likely, oral sex. A lot of women, and some men, experience little to no symptoms.

If symptoms do occur, they usually show up within one to three weeks after the infection was contracted. Because of this, it is very important for anyone who believes they may be at risk for chlamydia to get tested immediately.

Your doctor can test for chlamydia by taking a urine sample as well as taking a specimen from the infected area. If you fail to get treated in time, chlamydia can cause Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID), which can lead to infertility.

"Chlamydia can damage the Fallopian tubes and cause PID," explains Dr. Glen Hofmann, the medical director at the Bethesda Center for Reproductive Health and Fertility. "When a woman has one instance of PID, they have a 17 percent chance of becoming sterile. The second time, that chance raises to 35 percent and after the third time, it's up to 70 percent, even if they are treated. Those are really high odds."

Increasing numbers of chlamydia infections have made it the most widespread STD in the U.S. In 1996, there were 492,631 reported diagnoses, but by 2005, the annual total increased 98 percent for a shocking total of 976,445 reported diagnoses.

The rate of chlamydia among African-Americans was over eight times higher than that of Caucasians in 2005. Rates among American Indian/Alaska Natives and Hispanics were also significantly higher than among Caucasians.

Gonorrhea is also a curable infection and it is caused by the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoea. It can be transmitted from performing or receiving vaginal, anal and oral sex. Typically, men present with symptoms, while most women are asymptomatic.

Women often confuse gonorrhea symptoms for a bladder infection or other vaginal infection so it is especially important to get tested if you think you could be at risk.

In 2005, Ohio was ranked as the state with the fifth highest rate of gonorrhea. In 1978, the annual number of reported gonorrhea diagnoses in the U.S. reached a record high of 1,013,436. Following decreases each year between 1985 and 1997, the annual number of cases hovered around 365,000.

If left untreated, gonorrhea can also cause PID and infertility. Although the 2005 rate of 115,600 diagnoses is one of the lowest ever recorded, gonorrhea remains the second most commonly reported disease in the U.S.

The rate of gonorrhea among African-Americans was 18 times higher than among whites in 2005. American Indian/Alaska Natives and Hispanics are also disproportionately affected.

Syphilis is a curable infection caused by the bacteria Treponema pallidum. If it is left untreated, it will progress through four stages with symptoms that get increasingly more severe.

Syphilis can be contracted if the skin of the mucous membrane inside the vagina, urethra or anus, or a cut, comes into contact with infected lesions. These lesions will appear during primary and secondary syphilis.

You can be tested for syphilis by getting a blood test, which looks for antibodies that your body has developed. It can take from a week to a few months for these antibodies to show up in the blood test, which can lead to false-negative tests during the early stages of syphilis.

Syphilis can be cured through antibiotics such as penicillin. It reached a high of 94,957 cases in the U.S. in 1946 and a low of 5,979 in 2000. Since the turn of the millennium, the number of reported cases rose to 8,724 in 2005.

Of counties that reported, 78 percent of them reported no cases of syphilis in 2005. Syphilis remains a problem in the South and also in urban areas that have large populations of men who are having sex with other men. In 2005, the rate of primary and secondary syphilis was six times higher among African-Americans than among Caucasians.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a group of viruses that infect the skin. There are more than 70 different types and certain types cause warts on the hands or feet, while other types can cause warts on the genitals.
Most people with HPV do not know they have it, as a portion of the infected population never present with visible warts. About 30 of the types of HPV are sexually transmitted and cause genital HPV. If warts do not appear, HPV can still be detected by abnormal cell changes on the cervix and this can only be detected by getting a pap smear.

"Of all of the STDs, HPV is the most common in the paps I see," explains Hofmann. "HPV can kill a woman, so you and your partner should be tested and have trust in one another." If caught early enough, it can be treated.

But even if caught and treated, it can still have a negative impact on your life. "HPV requires a lot of aggressive treatment," says Hofmann. "If diagnosed early enough we can take care of it, but once child-bearing is over, you can have a hysterectomy to get rid of it."

HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus. It is the virus that causes AIDS. AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. HIV can be transmitted through the blood, breast milk, vaginal fluids or semen of an infected person. If any of these fluids enter the bloodstream, you could be risk for HIV. People can also become infected with HIV while injecting drugs using a shared needle.

Over time, HIV can weaken the immune system and the infected individual may experience difficulty fighting off certain infections. These infections are usually controlled by a healthy immune system, but they can cause problems or even be life threatening in someone with AIDS.

The immune system of someone who has AIDS can weaken to the point where medical intervention may be necessary to prevent or treat serious illness. A blood test can determine if a person is infected with HIV, but if a person tests positive for HIV, it does not necessarily mean that the person has AIDS.

AIDS was first identified in the U.S. in 1981. Since then, the epidemic has been steadily growing and by the end of 2004, it was estimated that there were just over 1 million people living with HIV and approximately 415,000 people living with AIDS. AIDS is also thought to have killed over half a million Americans. This is nearly 10 times the number of people who were killed in the Vietnam War.

Since knowing is only half of the battle, there are many steps you can take to insure your health and keep from contracting STDs.

"Number one is abstinence," says Hofmann, "and number two is barrier methods, though condoms are not 100 percent full proof. They have a 20 percent failure rate for pregnancy, so they aren't going to be 100 percent effective in preventing STDs either."

Another great way to keep yourself safe is mutual monogamy, being intimate with only one uninfected partner. You can't be certain that you haven't contracted an STD even if you practice the above methods, so make time to get tested and set your mind at ease.

Sexual health awareness efforts and STD education effectively save lives, but we still have a long way to go. A 2004 survey found that while 99 percent of Americans knew that having unprotected sex and sharing needles might transmit HIV, 38 percent thought that kissing could transmit it, 25 percent by sharing a drinking glass and 18 percent thought that touching a toilet seat could infect them. Clearly, more needs to be done.

"Awareness is really important," explains Hofmann. "I can council my daughter about abstinence all I want and she can have all of the best intentions, but I can't control what her husband-to-be has done in the past."

Being aware of the symptoms that STDs can cause, getting tested because not all STDs have symptoms and practicing safe prevention methods can save your life and the lives of those around you.