Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) or STDs, also known as venereal diseases, are infections or diseases that are passed from one person to another through sexual contact – usually spread by having vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Bacteria, viruses, or parasites that are on the skin or mucus membranes of the genital area or are present in semen, vaginal secretions, saliva or blood, can be transmitted from one person to another.
What are the symptoms of STIs?
Many STIs have only mild symptoms or none at all. Symptoms in women could easily be mistaken for a urinary tract infection or common yeast infection. Usual symptoms of STIs include burning sensation during urination, itching, swelling or sore in the genital area, pelvic pain/painful intercourse and vaginal/penile discharge. Sometimes women may have a change in color, odor and/or thickness of their usual vaginal secretions.
The stigma of STIs
Research conducted in Kenya and Nigeria showed interesting findings. Men were more likely than women to seek treatment for STIs. Women tend to bear the bulk of the stigma attached to STIs, with infections often being seen as a sign of promiscuity. As a result, women may choose not to confide in anyone, even if they have an unusual discharge or a sore.
The majority of young women who reported at least one STI symptom were married and may have been infected by their husband. Married women, out of fear of possible repercussions, may choose to treat their STIs themselves rather than risk going to a public health facility that might share their information with their husband. In fact, many women who experience such STI symptoms as vaginal discharge and genital itching do not regard them as serious or as the result of sexual intercourse and, therefore, do not believe that they need to be treated.
Stigma-related violence or the fear of violence and other stigma prevents many people from seeking testing (especially HIV testing), returning for their results, or getting treatment, possibly turning what could be a manageable illness into a death sentence and continuing the spread of STIs.
If you suspect you have an STI, it’s important to get tested. The sooner you know, the sooner you get treated and the less likely you are to spread the infection. Testing can be done at health centers, general hospitals, family planning clinics, state teaching hospitals, private health facilities and designated HIV test centers.
Anyone who tests positive for any STI should get tested for HIV and other STIs and follow up with testing for partners. Doctors often recommend treatment for you and your partner but keep in mind that the STI may have been contracted from a former sexual partner.
Anyone who tests positive for HIV should:
- Get screening and treatment for other diseases like Tuberculosis, Malaria and other STIs
- Follow up with testing for partners and children
It is troubling that recent estimates report that only 51% of people with HIV know their HIV status. HIV testing can be done confidentially or anonymously.
Bacterial and parasitic infections, such as Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis can be treated and cured with antibiotics.
Viral STIs such as Genital Herpes (HSV-2), HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B & C cannot be cured. They can be managed with medications to help reduce the signs and symptoms of the illness related to the infection as well as its complications.
- For all of these sexually transmitted diseases, it is important to note that EARLY DETECTION is the key to a good outcome.
How can you prevent STIs?
The only fail-safe way to prevent an STI is SEXUAL ABSTINENCE!
If you do have sex, lower your risk of getting an STI with the following steps:
- Limit your number of sex partners – Your risk of getting STIs increases with the number of partners you have
- Be monogamous – Having sex with just one partner can reduce your risk for STIs
- Get vaccinated – There are vaccines to protect against HPV and Hepatitis B.
- Use a Barrier Contraceptive – Condoms are the best way to prevent STIs when you have sex.
- Oral contraceptives and implanted devices, do NOT protect from STIs
- Get tested – Be sure you and your partner are tested for STIs. Talk to each other about the test results before having sex
- Avoid douching – It removes some of the normal bacteria in the vagina that protects you from infection. This may increase your risk of getting STIs.
- Do not abuse alcohol or drugs – Drinking too much alcohol or using drugs increases risky behavior and may put you at risk of sexual assault and possible exposure to STIs
These steps work best when used together. No single step can protect you from every single type of STI.
“Oh no!, Not again.” she thought. This was the third time in the past 6 months or so, that she was ‘spotting” or having some vaginal bleeding when it wasn’t time for her regular menstrual period. “I’m 45 years old, and have never had any problems with menstruation, what on earth is going on?” she asks her good friend. She had also noticed that sex with her husband was painful, with a little vaginal bleeding afterwards. Her friend smiles knowingly ”You’re getting old girlfriend! It might be the beginning of menopause.”
Unfortunately for the woman in our story, these are the most common symptoms of cervical cancer.
99% of all cervical cancer is caused by a virus called human-papillomavirus (HPV), which is transmitted from person to person through sexual contact. Half of all adults have been infected with HPV at some time. Most of the time, an HPV infection goes away by itself within 2 years, but sometimes high-risk HPV infections remain for several years and can cause genital warts or lead to cervical cancer.
Cervical cancer is one of the most common cancers in women worldwide and the number one cause of cancer deaths in African women. Cervical cancer occurs when abnormal cells grow out of control in the cervix. The cervix is the lower part of the uterus that opens into the vagina.
Cervical cancer is the easiest gynaecologic cancer to prevent, with regular screening tests and follow-up. It can often be successfully treated when it is found early. Two screening tests can help prevent cervical cancer or find it early:
- The Pap test (or Pap smear) looks for pre-cancers, changes in the cells of the cervix that might become cervical cancer if they are not treated appropriately.
- The HPV test looks for the virus (human papillomavirus) that can cause these cell changes.
A Pap test involves the doctor scraping a small sample of cells from the surface of the cervix to look for cell changes. The Pap test is recommended every 3 years for all women between the ages of 21 and 65 years old, and can be done in a doctor’s office or clinic.
Symptoms of cervical cancer may include:
- Bleeding: bleeding from the vagina that is not normal, such as bleeding between menstrual period, after sex or after menopause.
- Pain: this may occur in the lower belly or pelvis or during sex
- Discharge : vaginal discharge that isn’t normal
If any of these symptoms are present, a pap test is needed. If a Pap test shows abnormal cell changes, your doctor may do other tests to look for precancerous or cancer cells on your cervix.
The Pap test is the best way to find cervical cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Regular Pap tests almost always show these cell changes before they turn into cancer. It’s important to follow up with your doctor after any abnormal Pap test result so you can treat abnormal cell changes. This may help prevent cervical cancer.
Did you know that more than 99% of all cases of cervical cancer are caused by Human Papilloma Virus (HPV)?
Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths among African women.
The human papillomaviruses (HPVs) are groups of more than 200 related viruses of which more than 40 types can be spread through direct sexual contact. They can spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex. Some HPVs are responsible for genital and non-genital warts.
Sexually transmitted HPV types fall into two categories:
- Low-risk HPVs, which do not cause cancer but can cause skin warts on or around the genitals, anus, mouth, or throat.
- High-risk HPVs, which can cause cancer. About a dozen high-risk HPV types have been identified, two of which cause almost three-quarters (70%) of all cervical cancer.
Which cancers are caused by HPV?
High-risk HPVs cause several types of cancer:
- Cervical cancer:Virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV
- Anal cancer:About 95 percent of anal cancers are caused by HPV
Who’s at risk for HPV infections?
Anyone who has ever been sexually active – that is, engaged in skin-to-skin sexual conduct, including vaginal, anal, or oral sex – can get HPV. HPV is easily passed between partners through sexual contact. The infection is so common, that most people get HPV infections shortly after becoming sexually active for the first time. You can contract HPV infection even if you have only had one sexual partner.
You can have an HPV infection even if you have no symptoms and your only sexual contact with an HPV-infected person happened many years ago.
Can HPV infections be prevented?
- People who are not sexually active almost never develop genital HPV infections.
- HPV vaccination before sexual activity can reduce the risk of infection by the HPV types targeted by the vaccine. Two vaccines have been approved by the WHO to prevent HPV infection. They provide strong protection against new HPV infections, but are not effective at treating established HPV infections or disease caused by HPV.
- Correct and consistent condom use is associated with reduced HPV transmission between sexual partners. However, because areas not covered by a condom can be infected by the virus, condoms are unlikely to provide complete protection against the infection.