April is STD Awareness Month and Washoe County health providers such as Planned Parenthood, the Washoe County Health District and the Student Health Center at the University of Nevada, Reno are reaching out to the public in an effort to stop the spread of these diseases that pose a serious health threat to northern Nevadans.
On a national level, Planned Parenthood has partnered with MTV, the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others to support National STD Awareness Month with what the partnership is calling the Get Yourself Tested (GYT) campaign. GYT aims to inform young people about STDs, encourage and normalize testing and connect people with testing centers.
“GYT is about creating a youthful and empowering social movement around getting tested for STDs,” the CDC website states. “It works within a framework that recognizes a continuously high rate of HIV and STD infections among young people despite high levels of awareness about HIV/AIDS and other STDs. For a generation accustomed to communicating in shorthand, the GYT acronym presents STD testing in a context that is familiar and relatable to young people. GYT encourages testing as an act of pride, not shame, and promotes an open dialogue about STDs by encouraging young people to get themselves tested and spread the word about the campaign.”
According to the CDC, about 19 million new sexually transmitted disease infections occur every year. In Washoe County, chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD.
“Most people don’t know they have STDs,” said Alison Gaulden, vice president of public affairs for Planned Parenthood Nevada.
The Washoe County Health District issued a press release in early April that says screening is particularly important because many STDs have no signs or symptoms.
Gaulden said that although the diseases often exhibit no symptoms, the long-term consequences can be devastating. Diseases such as gonorrhea, chlamydia and human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to infertility; HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can lead to serious illness or death; some strains of HPV cause cervical cancer if not treated; and syphilis can cause heart disease, brain damage, blindness and death.
“There are many effective ways to prevent, diagnose and treat STDs,” said Mary-Ann Brown, Washoe County Health District interim officer. “STD screening and early diagnosis is vital to prevent disease transmission and serious health consequences. We encourage anyone engaging in unprotected sex to get tested for STDs and use condoms to decrease the chance of getting infected.”
What sexually active people need to know, Gaulden said, is these diseases are preventable and often can be cured. Four STDs cannot be eliminated once contracted: HIV, herpes, hepatitis B and HPV.
“The four ‘Hs’ are not curable,” she said.
Condoms are 98 percent effective in preventing the spread of disease when used properly, Gaulden said.
“Condoms are the most effective way to protect yourself,” she said. “The most common problem is user error.”
Frequent errors made when using condoms include putting them on inside out and forgetting to pull on the end so there is space in the top, Gaulden said.
“They don’t teach you that anywhere,” she said.
Planned Parenthood in 2006 conducted a study that concluded young women often do not want to carry condoms because of the stigma attached to being sexually active, Gaulden said. So in 2007, the organization launched a new line of condoms wrapped in more attractive packaging.
The “Proper Attire” line is geared toward women and features animal print labels, a fig leaf logo and more feminine product descriptions and names than traditional condom lines. Most condom lines are marketed to men, Gaulden said.
“This one is called Dots, which sounds so much better than ‘ribbed,’ ” Gaulden said as she opened a package to reveal a condom with nubs on the outside of it. “And ours is the only product with an 800 number on the back of it that you can call in case something goes wrong.”
Student Health Services at the University of Nevada, Reno distributes condoms to students and conducts free STD testing clinics twice yearly.
“We distribute about 40,000 free condoms per year,” said Enid Jennings of Student Health Services.
Jennings said the free STD testing clinics held for two weeks in December and February draw some 300 students each time.
“We test for HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis,” Jennings said of the free clinics, adding that the test normally would cost about $45.
The CDC recommends annual chlamydia screening for sexually active women under the age of 26. It also recommends girls and women between the ages of 11 and 26 who have not previously been vaccinated, or have not completed the series of three shots, be fully vaccinated against HPV.
Gaulden said the HPV vaccine is available at Planned Parenthood for girls and women and, as of last fall, for boys. She recommends that children be vaccinated between the ages of 9 and 12, which is generally long before they become sexually active. The vaccine will not guard against all 200 strains of HPV, but does protect against the strains that are most likely to cause cancer.
“One in four young women already has HPV,” Gaulden said.
Getting tested for STDs involves having blood drawn and giving a urine sample. According to Gaulden, Planned Parenthood has a rapid HIV test that can determine in 12 minutes whether a patient should undergo further testing for the virus.
“It’s the same as the swab test that you swab your mouth with,” Gaulden said. “But the swab test takes two weeks because it has to be sent to a lab.”
Testing for HIV is particularly important, she said, because the symptoms might not show up for several months or years after a person has contracted the disease. HIV is contracted through vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has the virus, or is spread by contact with infected blood and through sharing needles to inject drugs or for any other reason.
According to a Planned Parenthood brochure, symptoms of HIV/AIDS can include unexplained weight loss or tiredness, flu-like feelings that will not go away, diarrhea, white spots in the mouth or yeast infections in women that will not go away.
Gaulden said Planned Parenthood is striving to raise AIDS awareness through public outreach events such as a fundraising basketball game taking place at UNR on April 29. The “Ballin’ Against Aids” game sponsored by Planned Parenthood, the Northern Nevada Outreach Team, Northern Nevada Hopes, UNR and the Reno Bighorns will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Virginia Street Gym. The event will include free HIV testing, music, a raffle and prizes.
STD screening is available at the UNR Student Health Center, Washoe County Health District’s Sexual Health Clinic, Planned Parenthood or through a primary care physician and is covered by most insurance. Gaulden said Planned Parenthood provides services on a sliding fee scale basis to patients without insurance, but also encourages community members to take advantage of free testing clinics any time they are offered.
Gaulden said she also encourages parents to get involved in educating their children about safe sex and the value of being tested for diseases.