Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis, and syphilis are four potential outcomes of sex that we’d all like to avoid. However, according to new global estimates, each day there are more than one million new cases of these sexually transmitted infections.
The worrying thing is, even though we have never known more about how to prevent these infections, rates of infection remain very high worldwide.
The good news is, these 4 infections are curable.
Nothing to see here
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as they are also referred to, often have no symptoms. However, if left untreated there can be serious consequences including blindness and other neurologic manifestations, infertility, mother-to-child transmission or birth defects.
Human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B virus can cause cancer but both of these viruses can be prevented through a vaccine.
The stigma associated with having a sexually transmitted infection can add to the trauma.
STIs are spread predominantly by sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. Some STIs can also be spread through non-sexual means such as via blood or blood products. Many STIs—including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, primarily hepatitis B, HIV, and syphilis—can also be transmitted from mother to child during pregnancy and childbirth.
They cannot be spread through casual contact like sharing food, drinks, or hugging and sneezing.
WHO’s recent estimates focus only on 4 of the curable STIs, (chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and trichomoniasis)
If symptoms of the 4 curable infections do occur they may include vaginal discharge, urethral discharge in men, genital ulcers, painful urination, and abdominal pain.
The only way to know if you have an STI is to be tested. Unfortunately, a majority of the global population does not have access to reliable diagnostic testing for STIs due to high costs and limited availability of laboratory or point of care test kits. Limited access to STI services together with the asymptomatic nature of these infections result in the ongoing spread of these infections within groups, communities and globally.
About the curable four
Chlamydia is one of the most common STIs in women, particularly young women.
In 2016, among men and women aged 15–49 years old, there were 127 million cases of chlamydia.
Painful urination is a symptom of chlamydia, but most often there are no symptoms.
It can affect the genital tract, the urinary tract and the eyes. Without treatment, this can lead to blindness, infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease and ectopic pregnancy. Chlamydia can also put the health of infants born to infected mothers at high risk.
Chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics but beware, repeat infection is common.
Don’t be triched
Trichomoniasis (or “trich”) is the most common of the curable STIs. The organism Trichomonas vaginalis is a parasite which lives in the lower genital tract and is generally transmitted through sexual intercourse. The tricky thing about this parasite is that it can infect areas that are not covered by a condom – so condoms do not fully protect you from getting trichomoniasis.
Both men and women can get a trich infection. Symptoms vary but many who are infected do not know and can pass on the infection to others.
A healthcare provider must perform a laboratory test to diagnose trich.
It’s better to be safe than sorry as trichomoniasis can increase the risk of getting or spreading other sexually transmitted infections like HIV and pregnant women with the disease are likely to have premature babies with low birth weight.
Among men and women aged 15–49 years, there were 156 million new cases of trichomoniasis in 2016.
Syphilis, it’s serious
Spread through vaginal, anal and oral sex syphilis causes sores (called chancres) on your genitals. Left untreated, Syphilis can lead to serious and permanent problems like brain damage, blindness and paralysis. Many people with syphilis have no symptoms and do not know they are infected.
Syphilis has three stages – the first is the sores, in the second stage a rash and swollen lymph nodes develop and during the third stage the brain, heart and other organs can be affected.
6.3 million cases of syphilis were estimated to have occurred in 2016.
It’s spread through contact with the sores, predominately through vaginal, oral, and anal sex.
Mothers can pass syphilis to their baby in pregnancy and childbirth. In 2016, of 988,000 pregnant women infected with syphilis 200,000 were estimated to have experienced a stillbirth. Syphilis is the second leading cause of stillbirth globally and can result in other adverse birth outcomes such as neonatal death, congenital deformities, prematurity, and low birth weight infants. In
Take syphilis seriously and get tested and treated early if you are at risk or have symptoms. It can be cured through a simple treatment of penicillin.
The sex superbug: gonorrhoea
Gonorrhoea may be on the verge of becoming an untreatable disease. Gonorrhoea is caused by a bacteria, and it is treated with two drugs but resistance is already developing to one of the drugs. Soon we may have no treatment options remaining for multi-drug resistant gonorrhoea infections.
Those diagnosed with gonorrhoea are at risk of serious complications and untreated, the disease can cause inflammation of the womb and infertility. The infection can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her baby.
Infection in pregnant women can lead to early labour and delivery or permanent blindness in a newborn baby.
There were 87 million new cases gonorrhoea amount men and women aged 15-49 years in 2016.
How to stay safe
STIs are usually spread by having sex – digital, vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Some can be spread via blood or blood products and some (including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, HIV, herpes, HPV, and HBV) and can be passed from mother to child during pregnancy and childbirth.
So, what can you do to stay safe?
- Have safe sex,
- Use condoms and use them correctly,
- Access reliable sexual health education,
- Seek timely testing and treatment if you are at risk; Remember, most STIs have no symptoms. Limit casual sex and use condoms with a new partner.
- Get tested for STIs between partners and after unprotected sex If you feel you may be at risk of having been infected or reinfected.
- Talk about the potential risk of acquiring STIs with your partner
- Make informed choices about the level of risk you are comfortable taking with your sex life.
- If you are pregnant and are at risk for STIs, it is important to get tested and treated before your baby is born.
- Reinfection is common even after successful treatment. Make sure your partners get treated to prevent reinfection
When used correctly, condoms offer one of the most effective methods of protection against STIs, including HIV. Female condoms are also effective and safe.
We are often not aware that they may have an STI.
Any sexually active person can catch an STI, those who change partners frequently or do not use condoms are at higher risk. Previous successful treatment for an STI doesn’t make you immune to catching the infection again.
Knowledge is power
STIs can happen to anyone. We all need to know about them, how to prevent them and what to do when we have one.
Comprehensive sex education for young adolescents is imperative. Comprehensive sexuality education includes scientifically accurate information about human development, anatomy and reproductive health, as well as information about contraception, childbirth and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.
It is important to reach children at a young age (before they start having sex) with appropriate information.
Access to STI and HIV counselling is also invaluable. Increasingly countries are delivering STI interventions targeted to sex workers, men who have sex with men and people who inject drugs however access to high-quality diagnostic tests in many low and middle-income countries remains limited.