Hawaii: Sexual Disease Hot Spot
Wednesday - February 21, 2007
Rachel was 32 years old when she contracted genital warts, a sexually transmitted disease that has no cure.
She was devastated. The bumps around her genital area that appeared a few months back - ones that she thought were a mere skin irritation - were a form of HPV, human papillomavirus.
“What?! Are you sure?!” Rachel asked her doctor in surprise.
“Yes,” he said. “I am 99 percent sure that’s what it is. I see it all the time.”
He went on to explain how approximately 20 million people are currently infected with HPV and that at least 50 percent of sexually active men and women acquire genital HPV infection at some point in their lives.
But Rachel barely heard him. Shocked and bewildered, her STD diagnosis left Rachel feeling confused, ashamed and dirty. How could she go this long without getting an STD, only to get it now? She had always been in monogamous relationships and had almost always been careful to use protection.
But it only takes one night of carelessness to spread a disease. And it was her current, long-term boyfriend who unknowingly passed the disease along to her.
Rachel felt scared, and then angry and sad all at the same time. She wondered why she had to be the example.
But someone has to be the example. It is that mentality of “it will never happen to me” that I think keeps so many people from being sexually responsible. Often, it is the embarrassment of going to the doctor to ask for an STD test that feels like a sentence in itself.
According to Peter Whiticar, chief of the STD/AIDS Prevention Branch of the Hawaii State Department of Health, the five major STDs affecting the people of Hawaii agree:
Some of these STDs can be treated with antibiotics while others have no cure. But all can have long-term ramifications if left untreated and could cause irreversible damage.
“Chlamydia is by far the most prevalent STD in Hawaii,” explains Whiticar. “One-third of all reported cases of chlamydia are in individuals 15 to 19 years of age.”
Hawaii ranked fifth in the United States in the number of chlamydia cases with more than 5,000 cases reported in 2005.
“It is important to note that STDS can be asymptomatic and that individuals may not know they have been infected,” says Whiticar. “STDs that go undiagnosed and untreated can also lead to medical complications.”
So just because you don’t see a bump or sore doesn’t mean you or your partner isn’t carrying an STD.
What else you need to know: Patients should specifically ask their physician what tests are available for STDs, says Dr. Harry Yoshino, chair of the Hawaii section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. “It is then the doctor’s obligation to explain all the tests that are available. Most tests are not covered by insurance.”
Don’t just assume your doctor will tell you what you need to know. Do your research and ask the right questions. In Rachel’s case, she had been tested for certain STDs previously, so she assumed she had been tested for all of them and was in the clear. But apparently, she needed to specifically ask for the tests she wanted, including HPV and HIV.
“Any person, no matter what age, can contract an STD,” says Yoshino.
“If in doubt, check it out,” says Whiticar. “All sexually active females under age 25 should receive a routine chlamydia/gonorrhea test annually as recommended by the CDC. Regardless of age, individuals, male or female, with multiple sex partners, should also speak with their health care provider about STD screening.”
In Hawaii, the Diamond Head Health Center provides free and confidential STD examinations, treatment, counseling and referral services on a non-appointment basis. Call 733-9280 or visit www.hawaii.gov/health/healthy-lifestyles/std-aids/where-test-ing/index.html. If you feel uncomfortable going alone, then go with a friend. Seriously. The support helps. If you’re afraid of STDs, you should be, if that’s what it takes to make you want to take responsibility and get tested.
The friends Rachel told about her STD are really paying attention now. Many of them went to get tested right away. Because, in the end, even if you don’t care about what happens to you, what’s worse: avoiding the embarrassment of asking your doctor to test you for STDs or unknowingly infecting someone you care about so their life will never again be the same?
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