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Many have misconceptions about sexually transmitted infection risk – survey

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise, including an 80% increase in syphilis over a five-year period. This may also be because many have misconceptions on how STIs are spread and who should be treated.

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Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are on the rise, including an 80% increase in syphilis over a five-year period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A new survey from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center finds that this may also be because many have misconceptions on how STIs are spread and who should be treated.

The poll of 1,005 people found over a third (34%) falsely believe STIs can only be transmitted through sexual intercourse. In reality, there are many ways STIs can spread such as by kissing or sharing needles and even during childbirth. The survey also found that one in five (20%) believe they only need to be tested for STIs if they’re experiencing symptoms.

“We’re likely still experiencing some of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when STI prevention services were completely shut down. A lot of STIs were undiagnosed and under-reported then, allowing these infections to spread within the population. The CDC’s latest surveillance data from 2022 showed an alarming increase in cases of syphilis and congenital syphilis,” said Jose A. Bazan, DO, a professor of clinical internal medicine with the Division of Infectious Diseases at Ohio State.

Congenital syphilis occurs when people pass syphilis to their babies during pregnancy, sometimes resulting in stillbirths or other life-threatening conditions. In the US alone, cases of congenital syphilis increased 180% from 2018-2022, according to the CDC.

“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,” Bazan said.

How to prevent STIs

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

“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?’ 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. It’s important that people be tested, especially if they’ve never been screened, have new sexual partners or have high risk sexual partners,” she said.

“Doxy PEP is a new intervention 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.

Importance of talking about, testing for STIs

For some people, infections like HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV can develop without significant symptoms and may go undetected for long periods of time, resulting in serious health problems such as cancers of the anogenital tract, fertility issues, chronic pain and a compromised immune system.

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“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.

“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.”

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