Having “the talk”
By Alison Bailin Batz
Let’s talk about sexy, baby – as in sexually transmitted diseases!
And all of our sexual partners!
And getting tested!
The above discourse might be the least romantic conversation one can have with a new love – ever. But, however awkward it might be, this talk might also be one of the most important topics to discuss honestly as the relationship blooms.
According to the American Cancer Society, there will be more than 12,000 new cases of cervical cancer diagnosed this year in the United States alone, making it the third most common cancer in women. The disease forms slowly, but has few symptoms in its early stages.
The number one risk factor in developing cervical cancer – the human papilloma virus, or HPV.
This virus, which can also cause genital warts, comes in more than 100 different strains of varying degrees of severity. About 40 of these strains can affect the genital area, potentially leading to cervical cancer.
The bad news?
Genital HPV infection is very common among sexually active people. It is so common, in fact, that some estimate that half of all men and three-quarters of all women have been infected with HPV at some point in their lifetime.
“Men can be carriers of the disease for years without a single symptom, until they eventually transmit it to their significant other,” said Dr. Rhianna Meadows, program director for Primary Care and Male Services at Planned Parenthood Arizona.
The good news?
Most HPV infections will go away on their own without treatment within one to two years.
“However, some will continue to ‘hide’ in the body for many years before they cause problems,” said Dr. Meadows. “This makes it nearly impossible to determine when patients became infected with the disease, how long they’ve had it and who gave it to them.”
The importance of Paps
In addition to STD screenings, which both men and women should regularly undertake, it is highly recommended that all women have a Pap test done to detect early changes in the cervix.
A Pap test, which is not painful for the patient, is done by a medical provider inserting a metal or plastic speculum into the vagina, which is opened slowly to allow the clinician to visually examine the cervix (the opening to the uterus). The provider then uses a small brush and/or spatula to gently collect cells from the cervix. The cells are then sent to the laboratory to be tested for abnormalities.
The current recommendation for when to begin Pap testing is at the age of 21, regardless of when women first started having sexual intercourse. Pap testing can then be done every three years – some women may need them more frequently – depending on a health care provider’s recommendation. Women should continue to have a Pap test until they are 65 years of age or maybe later.
HPV is just the tip of the STD iceberg
According to Dr. Meadows, in addition to HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in Arizona are:
- Bacterial Vaginosis – the most common vaginal infection in women of childbearing age, occurs when the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina is disrupted. Symptoms including discharge, odor, itching and burning.
- Chlamydia – the most common cause of female infertility and the most widely reported STI in the United States, this infection may not present immediate symptoms, save for possible discharge from the penis, but is 100 percent treatable if caught in time. The chlamydia rate for Hispanics is nearly three times the rate among non-Hispanic whites.
- Gonorrhea – able to grow in moist areas of the body including the reproductive tract, cervix, uterus, urethra, mouth, throat, eyes or even anus, the symptoms of this disease can often be confused with those of a common bladder infection, but can lead to both male and female infertility as well as high-risk pregnancy. In 2010, the national average of Hispanics with gonorrhea was 2.2 times the rate among whites and higher in men than in women.
- Syphilis – this potentially fatal disease often first appears via sores on the body, then develops into a rash around the mouth, vagina or anus. Lack of treatment can eventually lead to late-stage symptoms including paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness and dementia. In 2010, more than 16 percent of all cases of syphilis reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were by Hispanics, more than twice as often as for non-Hispanic whites.
“With so many of these diseases easily confused with common ailments, or symptom-free in early stages, the only defense is a good offense,” said Dr. Meadows. “In this case, the only good offense is open communication with one’s partner.”
Some questions to get started:
- Have you ever been tested for any STDs? If so, which ones?
- Are you involved with anyone else, or when was your last sexual activity?
- I believe in safe sex and condom use, do you?
“It is also worth offering to get tested together,” adds Dr. Meadows, who notes that if cost is an issue, there are four Planned Parenthood Centers in Arizona that are funded by Title X (Mesa, Maryvalle, Tucson and Yuma), which allow women and men without health insurance to receive reproductive health care at reduced rates, or in some cases free, depending on their family size and income at the time of their visit.
For more information, please visit ppaz.org
Preventive care is the first defense in reducing the risk of contracting an STD. The most effective ways to reduce one’s risk include:
- Practicing abstinence
- Having only one sexual partner who has no other intimate partners
- Having sexual contact that does not involve anal or vaginal intercourse
- Using condoms every time
Uninsured? Visit a Title X-funded Center
In addition to accepting AHCCCS, the Title X-funded Planned Parenthood Centers in Mesa, Maryvale, Tucson and Yuma provide a variety of services for the uninsured which may include:
- Reproductive life/family planning counseling
- Gynecological examinations and basic lab tests
- Breast and cervical cancer screenings
- Contraceptive counseling and supplies/methods
- Testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases
- HIV testing and risk reduction counseling
- Pregnancy testing
- General health screenings for high blood pressure, diabetes and anemia
- Community education and outreach
- Services to men, including, but not limited to, testing and treatment of some STDs, education on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, reproductive life counseling and exams.