By Lisa Scheidelman, Epidemiologist, U.S. Army Public Health CommandMarch 28, 2013
April is sexually transmitted disease (STD) awareness month, an annual effort aimed at educating the public about prevention, treatment and risk reduction. STDs are serious problems affecting both military and civilian communities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 20 million new STDs occur annually in the United States, contributing to 110 million cases--all of which are preventable. Nearly half of cases occur among young adults aged 15--24. STDs burden America's youth, and cost the healthcare system almost $16 billion each year.
Common STDs include chlamydia, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, herpes, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), human papillomavirus (HPV), syphilis and trichomoniasis. STDs can cause infections within multiple body sites, including the eyes, mouth, throat, anus, penis, vagina and liver.
Anyone who has unprotected sex--whether it's oral, vaginal or anal sex--is at risk. STDs can also be spread from mother to baby, by sharing needles, syringes, or razors, or using unclean tattoo or piercing equipment.
STDs don't always produce recognizable symptoms, but can still be spread to others. It's also impossible to tell if someone is "clean" just by looking at them.
When symptoms occur, they are usually mistaken for another skin condition, bladder or vaginal infection. In general, STDs can cause painful urination, itching, discharge, swollen testicles, bleeding between periods, sores, warts or lesions.
Untreated STDs can lead to irreversible problems in males and females. For instance, untreated chlamydia or gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease in females, a condition causing abscesses and reproductive complications. STDs can also cause health effects in newborns.
HPV can cause cancer of the penis, anus, cervix or throat. Syphilis, HIV, hepatitis B and C are serious diseases that can result in long-term health problems and even death.
Some STDs can be cured with antibiotics; others are permanent but treatment can help manage symptoms. It is important that medication be taken as prescribed and not stopped early, even if symptoms improve. This will prevent STDs from becoming resistant and eventually untreatable.
Participating in high-risk activities can lead to an STD. These activities include having unprotected sex, not always using condoms, having multiple sex partners, frequent one night stands, or exchanging sex for money or products. Also, being under the influence of alcohol or drugs can impair judgment and lower inhibitions.
Social "hook up" networks and mobile applications allow for easy ways to meet new people, but it's not always safe and can lead to high-risk activities. It can also increase the risk of being in a dangerous situation such as rape, robbery or kidnapping. Remember, people can easily lie and misrepresent themselves online.
It is important to get tested. Military treatment facilities offer free, confidential testing, treatment and counseling for Tricare beneficiaries. Civilian public health departments also offer testing; to locate a center, text your zip code to GYTNOW (498669). Testing for most STDs can be as easy as providing a urine, blood or saliva specimen. It's important to understand that if someone participates in high-risk activities after getting tested, they cannot advertise themselves as being negative for STDs.
People who participate in high-risk activities should be frequently tested for HIV and STDs. The Army requires annual chlamydia screening for female Soldiers under 25. Additionally, all Soldiers are required to be tested for HIV at least once every two years.
Only a few vaccines are available to protect against STDs. The HPV vaccine is recommended for males and females 11--26 years old. Military personnel, infants, children under 18, high-risk occupations, or participants in high-risk activities should also receive the Hepatitis B vaccination. Both vaccines are administered in three separate doses and all are required in order to be protected. The Hepatitis A vaccine is also recommended for those who engage in anal sex; two doses of the vaccine are needed.
Remember, STDs are preventable. Sexually active individuals must use protection (male or female condoms) every time to prevent getting or spreading an STD. Other forms of birth control do not protect against STDs. Practicing mutual monogamy between uninfected partners can also prevent infections. STDs can produce life-altering outcomes, and choices made now can impact the future.