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Talking about sexually transmitted diseases is a taboo, and this just propagates myths about STDs in women. Let’s examine and bust these myths.
STDs in women (Sexually Transmitted Disease) are spoken about only in hushed whispers even among educated, aware women. A word that, I feel, needs to be spoken aloud in today’s environment, especially among the younger women.
There are more than 30 different sexually transmissible bacteria, viruses and parasites.
The most common conditions they cause are gonorrhoea, chlamydial infection, syphilis, trichomoniasis, chancroid, genital herpes, genital warts, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and hepatitis B infection.
STDs in women put them at risk. They can affect the women’s health, as well as their sexual life and pleasure. They can become fatal in some cases. For women who intend having children (or become pregnant by accident), there is a high risk of transmitting it to their unborn children.
STDs in women remain a topic that is rarely discussed on any forum, and for all the reasons enumerated above, it is important that women should be aware of them.
Statistics about the magnitude of the problem of STDs in women in India are not very easily available, however the ICMR estimates in 2014 state that almost 6-8% of the Indian adult population has an STD or reproductive tract infection. Given the size of the population, those are incredible numbers that our country must deal with. Besides, the adolescent and young adults are also increasingly at risk – that too, at a time in their lives when they are not fully aware of the impact it would have on their future sexual as well as reproductive health.
We will now move on to the myths that surround STDs in women.
Though many STDs present with genital or oral ulcers or lesions, there are many that thrive in the body without any outer symptom or sign. The most dangerous one being HIV infection which may take years to progress to AIDS, but the person may harbour the virus and become a potential hazard to his or her partner.
While it is true that the having multiple partners or multiple exposures to infected partners does increase the risk of women contracting STD, even one contact is enough to infect a person, a fact famously brought out in the movie, Phir Milenge, where Shilpa Shetty’s character gets the infection from a single encounter with the character essayed by Salman Khan.
Nothing can be further from the truth. Most of the infections can be diagnosed via a simple blood test or at best, may require a swab taken from the site of the lesion if there are lesions like ulcers. The results of the tests are conveniently sent to the patient by mail or SMS, thereby maintaining confidentiality and privacy of the patient. There are several online labs which provide home testing or sampling and one can always use this facility with confidence, saving time and perceived embarrassment.
Most of the diseases are amenable to antibiotic treatment, and the treatment is easily available in safe, hygienic, public as well as private hospital set-ups. Even HIV, once diagnosed, can be treated to prevent it from progressing to full blown AIDS. All one needs to do is contact a good health care provider and follow the medical advice given.
To a certain extent, having a single partner does decrease the risk, but does not afford full immunity against contracting an STD ,and so one needs to practice safe sex even when in a monogamous relationship.
Oral, anal, and vaginal sex can all transmit the disease, though chances of transmission is higher in vaginal sex. It is imperative to practice safe sex even when one is in the same sexual relationship. All sexual contact, whether homosexual or heterosexual, is liable to be responsible for contracting the disease from an infected partner.
Many of the infections may subside after running its course in the short term, but the long-term effects can be devastating for the index person who now becomes a carrier and can infect his/ her partner at any time, even if the acute symptoms subside, besides developing the complications of such infections like of infertility or chronic pelvic inflammation.
These are contraceptives which protect against unwanted pregnancy alone, and have no role to play in prevention of STDs. Barrier contraceptives like condoms diaphragms and caps are the only contraceptives that protect against STDs.
In fact, it’s the adolescents and young adults who need more protection, and more importantly, be educated and aware of the possibility of STDs, and know how important it is to protect against them as much as protect oneself from unwanted pregnancy. So, all sex education should include safe sex practices as well.
There are several STDs notably HIV, Syphilis, Hepatitis B which can be transmitted through transfusion of blood and blood products, injections and other unsafe practices like sharing of needles among IV drug abusers.
STD is transmissible between all kinds of partners, same sex partners, transgenders, monogamous, promiscuous, from spouses, significant others or sex workers. No one is exempt from contracting, harbouring or transmitting these diseases.
Now that we have talked about the common myths about STSDs lets look at how we can tackle the problem. The mainstay is prevention of contracting the disease and early diagnosis and treatment. Prevention can be either primary or secondary.
Primary prevention requires one to protect oneself against all STDs. This would be best tackled only by abstinence which is neither practical nor possible. So, it would therefore involve practice of safe sex in the form of barrier contraceptives. Both male and female condoms are available but female condoms are not very popular. Diaphragms and cervical caps are no longer very easily available. It is also prudent to get the relevant blood tests done at regular intervals. There are window periods especially for HIV, therefore if one has practiced unsafe sex, the tests should be repeated after an interval of 4 to 6 weeks.
Vaccination against HPV virus, implicated in the cause of cervical cancer, is also available, and it would be prudent to take this vaccination for all sexually active adults especially young girls between the ages of 11 to 18. The other vaccine available is against Hepatitis B, which is spread through sexual contact as well as the use of infected needles and blood products. So, it is imperative to use sterile needles and avoid sharing razors or needles even in a monogamous relationship.
Tattoos are also an important, if rare, source of unknowingly contracting such infections hence one has to be very sure that the centres one gets tattoos from use sterile precautions.
Other biomedical methods include male circumcision and use of vaginal creams which afford a certain degree of protection without being fool proof.
Secondary prevention is consulting a doctor in the event of any suspicious lesion, ulcers, discharge and having it treated. The doctor would advise necessary tests as well if indicated and it is best to follow that advice, besides taking necessary treatment.
Women are usually more at risk of contracting infections at an earlier age and at risk of transmitting it to the unborn children, and hence need to be even more careful. Some of the diseases a mother can transmit include HIV, Hepatitis B, Herpes, Syphilis and chlamydia.
There should be no stigma attached to STDs – it is just a disease which needs treatment just as any other disease. Ignoring the symptoms or refusing to see the doctor would only result in aggravation of the problem and possibly long term unpleasant and unlucky sequelae.
The specific treatment and further measures to prevent STDs in women is beyond the purview of this article – it is meant to be a sensitizer to the reader about the myths that one may falsely believe and an attempt to set those myths in the right perspective.
While it is unacceptable that so many women and girls continue to suffer from often preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, what is also unacceptable and much less recognised, is the burden of complications which women and girls face if they contract STDs which can have severe implications for well-being throughout life, jeopardising the sexual and reproductive health of women and girls.
Have a happy but safe and healthy sex life, folks!
Header image is a still from the movie Raazi
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A Gynecologist by profession n blogger by passion, I love words!
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