How Do You End an Epidemic of STDs? It Takes a Country

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Commentary Sexual Health

How Do You End an Epidemic of STDs? It Takes a Country

William Smith

While the cool mornings here in our nation’s capital may belie it, it is April again, which means the yearly observation of Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Awareness Month.

Published in partnership with the National Coalition of STD Directors (NCSD).

See all of our coverage of STD Awareness Month 2013 here.

While the cool mornings here in our nation’s capital may belie it, it is April again, which means the yearly observation of Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Awareness Month. This April we are facing challenges to our sexual health like never before, such as the growing possibility of a drug resistant gonorrhea epidemic, high rates of STDs among our young people, and mounting evidence showing a strong link between HIV and STDs. It’s time for us to talk about the role each of us can play to improve sexual health in our community.

While there is no easy answer or single reason “why” people contract an STD, research indicates that solutions must go beyond individual characteristics or behaviors. Educators, parents, youth advocates, HIV/AIDS organizations, physicians, legislators, health departments, and researchers, all have a role to play in reducing the impact of STDs.

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  • Parents are the primary health educators for young people. Young people need their parent’s guidance throughout their development. Although talking about sex can be a challenge, sexual health organizations have a wealth of resources for parents that teach communication skills and highlight the latest information. Parents can also help regularize sexual health care services for their young people by encouraging such things as routine testing for STDs, including HIV, and working together to identify places in their community where such services are available.

  • Educators and school administrators spend a lot of time with our youth. When educators can provide medically accurate, age-appropriate information about sex and health in a safe and supportive environment, our children have the information they need to make good choices now, and in the future.  School administrators can also provide valuable leadership in supporting policies and practices that ensure school-based or school-linked sexual health care services are available..

  • Youth advocates include behavioral health and guidance counselors, case managers, and even peer health educators. Advocates need to speak up and represent the perspective of young people.

  • HIV/AIDS organizations know that people with an STD can be 2-to– 5 times more likely to contract HIV or spread it to a partner. The HIV community has an important role in preventing STDs, because STD prevention is HIV prevention as well.

  • Physicians are on the front lines of STD treatment and prevention. Doctors and nurses should encourage patients to talk about sexual health as part of overall wellness. The medical community should follow treatment and testing guidelines from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including routine screening for young women, pregnant women, and men and women who are at risk for HIV and STDs.

  • Policymakers represent us in all halls of government and enact policy that affects where we live, work, and learn. Policymakers play an important role ensuring that all residents in their jurisdiction have access to health information and services. When our legal and policy environment supports expansion and access to sexual health care, our entire community thrives.

  • State and Local Departments of Health are on the front lines of STD prevention, keeping our communities strong and healthy through STD and HIV prevention and control activities. These activities include education and awareness efforts, clinical services for the uninsured and underinsured, monitoring disease trends, and responding to disease outbreaks. Ensuring STD and HIV programs have the resources they need to be fully operational is an important investment in the future of our communities.

  • Industry partners should consider STD-related public health priorities in their work. For example, STDs like gonorrhea are getting harder to treat. Normally when someone gets gonorrhea, they can go to a health care provider and get tested and treated with antibiotics. However, we are finding that gonorrhea isn’t responding as well to available antibiotics like it used to. We urgently need researchers to develop new drugs to treat gonorrhea to avoid an untreatable gonorrhea epidemic. Additionally, new diagnostics and tests for STDs are needed for STD testing more easily and with more mobility. The ability of point-of-care testing for all STDs needs to be expanded, not to mention tests for screening for STDs at extra-genital sites, like the rectum and the throat.

  • Researchers should also consider STD-related priorities in their work. In addition to assisting partners in developing new drugs for the treatment of STDs, clinical studies are needed to provide public health with more data on what interventions work best to promote sexual health.

When we all do our part, we lift the health of our communities up as a whole. But when we aren’t engaged, we see rising rates of adverse sexual health outcomes that take personal and societal tolls. So this month, my organization, the National Coalition of STD Directors, will be publishing a series of articles in collaboration with Rewire, highlighting the roles each of these parts of our community can play in sexual health promotion and STD prevention. Join us.