Ignorance Could Be Fueling Rising Spread of STDs, Poll Finds

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Key Takeaways

  • Many Americans are misinformed regarding how sexually transmitted diseases spread

  • About a third think they can only be transmitted through sexual intercourse

  • Another 20% think they only need to be tested if they have symptoms

THURSDAY, June 27, 2024 (HealthDay News) -- Many sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise in the United States, and a nationwide poll indicates that ignorance about how they're transmitted could be fueling their spread.

About a third of Americans (34%) falsely believe sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can only be transmitted through sexual intercourse, poll results show. In fact, they can also be transmitted by kissing, sharing needles and during childbirth.

It also found that 1 in 5 Americans (20%) think they only need to be tested for STIs if they are experiencing symptoms.

“We’re likely still experiencing some of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when STI prevention services were completely shut down,” researcher Dr. Jose Bazan, a professor of clinical internal medicine with Ohio State University’s Division of Infectious Diseases, said in a news release.

Syphilis cases have jumped 80% over a five-year period, researchers said in background notes.

Worse, cases of congenital syphilis – in which women pass the bacteria to their babies during pregnancy – increased 180% between 2018 and 2022, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

During the pandemic, “a lot of STIs were undiagnosed and under-reported then, allowing these infections to spread within the population,” Bazan said.

“It’s important that pregnant individuals get screened for syphilis as this is a very preventable infection that can easily be treated with antibiotics. Unfortunately, the rising number of cases tells us we’re not reaching vulnerable populations in time,” he continued.

The most effective way to prevent an STI is to use a condom and discuss testing with a doctor or sexual partner, Stacey Biffle-Quimba, a family nurse practitioner who is program manager for sexual health and women’s health at Columbus Public Health in Ohio, said in a news release.

“Part of having a safe and healthy relationship with your partner is being able to have those conversations and say, ‘When was the last time that you were tested? What's your status?’” Biffle-Quimba said. “Preventing transmission to a partner is very important because that partner may have other partners and that's where it can turn into an epidemic.”

Vaccinations for HPV and hepatitis A/B also are important along with HIV medications that keep virus levels low enough to prevent transmission, experts said.

In another step to stop STIs, the CDC recently finalized new guidelines for using the antibiotic pill doxycycline following a possibly risky encounter.

Doxycycline can be “taken within 72 hours after a sexual encounter with the hope that it can prevent them from acquiring an STI such as chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis,” Bazan said.

People should also keep in mind that infections like HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV can go undetected for long periods without any significant symptoms, eventually resulting in serious health problems, experts said.

“Doctors need to normalize talking about sexual health with their patients. We should feel just as comfortable talking about sexual health topics as we do about blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes,” Bazan said.

The CDC recommends a three-step program to prevent STDs – talk, test and treat.

At-home testing kits are available for different STIs, including HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, experts said. However, learning personal results is only one step in the process.

“While these tests are convenient and private, it’s important to discuss the results with a doctor to determine if a repeat STI test or treatment is needed,” Bazan said. “Having these conversations in a safe and non-judgmental way is a critical tool in helping us fight the epidemic of STIs.”

The survey was conducted in English online and by phone April 5-7 among 1,005 people.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about sexually transmitted infections.

SOURCE: Ohio State University, news release, June 25, 2024

What This Means For You

People should learn more about how STDs are transmitted, and take steps to protect themselves and partners.

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