In South Africa, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) remain a big problem, even though most of the infections can be cured. The fear of being stigmatised is one of the many reasons why people are reluctant to seek medical treatment for sexually transmitted infections. During February, awareness of STIs is generated due to STI Week on the health calendar.
STIs do not discriminate or respect boundaries; they can affect anyone who is sexually active regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and economic status. They are infections transmitted through sexual contact, caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites. Women often have more serious health problems from STIs than men, including infertility.
More than 1 million STIs are acquired every day. In South Africa, estimates of people newly infected with STIs in 2017 were approximately 4.5 million for gonorrhoea, 6 million for chlamydia and 71 000 for syphilis.
In 2016, WHO estimated 376 million new infections with 1 of 4 STIs: chlamydia (127 million), gonorrhoea (87 million), syphilis (6.3 million) and trichomoniasis (156 million). More than 500 million people are living with genital HSV (herpes) infection and an estimated 300 million women have an HPV infection, the primary cause of cervical cancer. An estimated 240 million people are living with chronic hepatitis B globally. Both HPV and hepatitis B infections are preventable with vaccination.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Clear, white, greenish or yellowish vaginal or penile discharge.
- Strong vaginal odor.
- Vaginal itching or irritation.
- Itching or irritation inside the penis.
- Sores, blisters, ulcers or warts on genital area.
- Pain during sexual intercourse.
- Painful urination.
Anyone who has had sexual contact can get an STI. Many STIs are spread through contact with infected body fluids such as blood, vaginal fluids, or semen. They can also be spread through contact with infected skin or mucous membranes, such as sores in the mouth. You may be exposed to infected body fluids and skin through vaginal, anal or oral intercourse.
The best way to prevent getting an STI is to not have sex. Some STIs can't be cured, so you should always practice safe sex, or find ways to be intimate in a romantic relationship without having sex.
If you do decide to have sex, you should:
- Use condoms 100% of the time. Make sure that you use a new latex condom correctly every time you have oral, anal or vaginal intercourse. If you are allergic to latex, use a polyurethane male or female condom.
- Use a water-base lubricant with condoms. The lubricant will keep the condom from breaking.
- Limit the number of people you have intercourse with.
- Choose partners who have not had intercourse with many other partners, and who will only have intercourse with you while you are together.
- Do not have intercourse with anyone that has signs of an STI (sores, rashes or discharge).
Contracting an STI can be manageable. Many are treatable, even curable, through antibiotics or antiviral medications. If you have any symptoms of an STI or you think you may have been exposed to an STI, see a health care provider.
So how do we prevent the spread of STIs in our communities?
- We need to STOP STIGMA around STIs: so that those with infections can access care and treatment without fear of discrimination.
- We need to COMMUNICATE: talk freely with our partners about STIs and safe sex practices and educate our children about STI prevention.
- We need to COOPERATE: with each other and with healthcare workers, access treatment if infected and also refer partners for care.
- We need to CONDOMISE: consistent and correct condom use will protect against infection and prevent spread to others.
If you need to talk to a sister or a doctor about STIs, please contact Campus Health Service on 021 808 3496.