World Sexual Health Day, a good reminder to check in on an important part of your healthcare that is unfortunately frequently overlooked, often because people simply don’t want to think about it, let alone talk about it. It’s just not a sexy conversation, but with the joys of sex comes the need for responsibility. Head doctor at Stigma Health, Dr Mitchell Tanner shares a few things that you may not know and if you do hopes they serve as a timely reminder to you that it’s important to get tested for STIs every time you change sexual partners.
image via pinterest
Let’s start with a common misunderstanding, STIs and STDs, what’s the difference? The answer is, there is none. The term STD was changed to STI because STIs are treatable and often have no symptoms so the term infection suits them much better than disease, not to mention it sounds a little less scary.
Which leads to my next point, it’s no secret that STIs can be awkward and embarrassing and the very idea of having one might bring you out in a sweat, but I want to get this out of the way now, STIs are not something to be ashamed of, they can and do happen to people from all walks of life, but unfortunately the unnecessary stigma attached to them is helping to feed the problem not just in Australia but all over the world.
Did you know that Medicare Data gathered by The Kirby Institute for their 2016 Annual Surveillance Report showed that only 15% of 15-29 year olds were tested for Chlamydia in 2015? Or that The Kirby Institute also estimated that only 28% of Chlamydia infections were actually diagnosed, the rest remain untreated and undetected. That’s pretty frightening when you consider that Chlamydia when left untreated can cause infertility in both women and men.
Ladies, you’ve probably been told before that the symptoms of Chlamydia can be absent for months or may never present at all, but the infection will continue to develop and can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) which can be very unpleasant but is also the condition that causes more serious problems down the line, particularly when it comes to conceiving. Here are the stats, untreated Chlamydia increases the risk of PID from 6.5 to 25 fold, that’s a pretty big increase! But wait I’m not done, just one episode of PID increases the risk of ectopic pregnancy sevenfold.
So STIs like Chlamydia might seem like no big deal, but they actually are. As a GP I’ve witnessed firsthand the devastating consequences that untreated Chlamydia can have and that is part of the reason I Co-Founded Stigma Health, the online STI testing service eliminating barriers to testing such as cost, convenience and embarrassment.
Let’s take a quick look beyond Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea is the second most common STI in Australia and like Chlamydia it often presents no symptoms and can result in PID and infertility in women. The Kirby Institutes 2016 Annual Surveillance Report also showed that between 2009 and 2015 there was a 116% increase in the rate of diagnoses of Gonorrhoea.
You may have recently also encountered Gonorrhoea in the news due to the antibiotic resistant strains that have been identified in some countries. Infections and diseases have a way of evolving and Gonorrhoea is one that seems to be doing just that. It’s very serious, there is a pressing need for new treatments to be developed, but there is also a pressing need for people to be tested and receive treatment in order to avoid the spread and development of these new strains.
Syphilis is unfortunately also still a concern and antibiotic resistant strains of Syphilis have also been identified overseas. Here in Australia the rate of diagnoses has increased by 266% in those aged 25-29, 223% in those aged 20-24 and 171% in those aged 30-39 since 2006 according to The Kirby Institute.
Syphilis develops in stages, the first two stages involve sores and a rash, but they can go unnoticed and they will resolve themselves. However the infection will still continue to develop and if it remains untreated it can become extremely serious.
Of course there are other STIs, Herpes, HPV, HIV and the three Hepatitis’ A,B & C, but it’s too much to cover in one article! So let’s talk about how to make sure you are tested for what you should be. When you seek an STI test, what you are tested for depends on your answers to six standard questions, but all sexually active females will be tested for Chlamydia and these days most likely Gonorrhoea as well. If you’ve experienced symptoms of Syphilis or have reason to believe you may have been exposed to HIV or another STI then you will need to discuss this with your doctor. You should also be tested for Hep A if you are engaging in anal sex. If you are experiencing or have experienced symptoms of Herpes such as difficulty passing urine, painful ulcers on the genitals or around the anus or in the throat then you need to visit a doctor and have swabs of the area taken.
HPV is the ONLY STI that is identified via Pap Smear, it is not an uncommon misconception that Pap Smears clear a person of other STIs but they do not, you need to seek an STI test. Most women these days know that HPV has been linked to Cervical Cancer, which is why getting Pap Smears once every two years is essential for your wellbeing. Additionally if you have not received The Gardasil Vaccine yet speak to your GP about it ASAP.
Now I want to close by talking about how to get tested and this is the hurdle that many fail to overcome, hence Australia’s STI rates, but it does not have to be a big dramatic exercise.
At Stigma Health (http://www.stigmahealth.com) we offer STI testing minus the awkward face to face with the doctor, you order your Pathology Referral online, receive it on your phone and you can go to any Pathology Centre in Australia to be tested and get your results on your phone and this month we’re offering our service free in honour of World Sexual Health Day so if you’ve been putting it off, you’re not alone, but I urge you to please do the responsible thing and be tested this month.
If online isn’t for you, then you can visit any GP and request your Pathology Referral, this includes bulk-billing doctors and medical centres. You can also seek out a free sexual health clinic in your area and be tested. If you’re not sure how to locate one or have other concerns then search for your State Sexual Health infoline, trained sexual health nurses man these and they’ll be able to assist with any of your concerns or questions.
The important thing to remember is that no matter how you go about it, by getting tested you are doing the right thing by yourself and your sexual partners and you are helping to normalise testing, because the more people get tested, the more everyone else will follow suit.
If you’re all over it and you get tested regularly then good on you, but you probably have friends who aren’t so there’s still something you can do in honour of World Sexual Health Day this month, talk to a friend about getting tested and lead by example.
STIs don’t have to be an issue if we all play our part.