April is STD Awareness Month and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wants the healthcare community to get enthused about STD prevention! Are you enthused or confused? The topics of sex, pregnancy, and STD’s are often 800 pound gorillas in our homes, schools, and even some doctor’s offices. Why is it so difficult to talk about sex? After all, with very few exceptions, every baby born will eventually grow into a sexually active adult. Additionally, children are bombarded by sexual messages on TV, in movies, and even in checkout lines at grocery stores. Before the hormones of puberty rev up, we need to be sure our kids have the facts they need to make informed decisions about expressing their sexuality.
STD’s are very common. In Ontario County STD rates go up every year. They are usually highest in 19-24 year olds. Like the rest of the United States, the vast majority of reported infections are due to chlamydia. Chlamydial infections are caused by bacteria. Among males, symptoms may include burning with urination or abnormal discharge from the penis. Females may note abnormal vaginal discharge, irregular bleeding, cramping, or pain during sex. In many cases symptoms are mild or completely absent.
STD’s can change a person’s life forever. Infections with chlamydia and gonorrhea can be cured but may result in scarring to a woman’s reproductive organs leading to chronic pain and infertility. Herpes causes painful lesions that may recur throughout a lifetime. Human papilloma virus (HPV) can lead to cervical, penile, and anal cancers.
STD prevention is not just about using condoms. Though condoms offer effective protection against many STD's including HIV, they do not prevent all types of infections all the time. Herpes and HPV, for instance, can appear on areas of the body a condom does not cover. Transmission can occur from skin-to-skin contact. Teaching adolescents and young adults to communicate with their parents, healthcare providers, and each other about sex is an important component of sex education.
STD education is not a 40-minute movie in Health class. Preparing a child for puberty and eventual sexual activity doesn’t happen all at once. It is like teaching him to ride a bike; another potentially dangerous activity. You don't turn him loose in traffic the first day out. You start with the basics, “Hold onto the handle bars. Put your feet on the pedals.” When he’s practiced for a while you start talking about taking off the training wheels. You introduce new information as it is needed; “Ride with traffic. Wear your helmet.” You set limits, “Stay within five miles of home.” You check in with him, “Any problems with your bike?” Most importantly you create an atmosphere of trust so he will come to you when he has questions or gets hurt.
So, get enthused about STD’s this month! Start a conversation with your kids, your students, and your patients. Remove the gorilla from the room. Your silence about sex leaves a child uninformed and at risk of not only emotional harm, but illnesses that can impact his life forever.