Look around you. Health educators estimate that one out of every four students you meet could potentially have a sexually transmitted disease. These diseases are what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call “the ‘hidden’ epidemic.”
STDs transcend race, religion and socio-economics. You can’t tell by looking at a person’s clothes or home that they have one. Most college students are aware that STDs exist, but do not consider them a real threat. However, the rates of college-aged people with STDs are astounding.
“One in three sexually experienced young people will have an STD by age 24,” said Karlie Stanton, spokeswoman for the CDC’s National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention. “We can’t really predict how numbers will turn out, but with HIV, for the past 10 years it’s been a steady 40,000 new infections each year since 1990. Half are in people under 25,” Stanton added.
Although most students are aware of the threat of contracting HIV, many do not realize that other sometimes-incurable STDs are becoming more and more common. The fastest spreading STDs are herpes, the human papilloma virus – which can cause genital warts – and chlamydia,” said University Health Service Sexual Health Educator Traci Jarrett.
According to information published by the American Social Health Association, one out of every five Americans has genital herpes, yet at least 80 percent are unaware they have contracted the disease.
One reason that herpes and HPV may be so common is because they are not contracted through the exchange of sexual fluids like HIV and chlamydia. Rather, they are acquired through skin-to-skin contact.
“A lot of students don’t understand that even if they use condoms, there is skin-to-skin contact,” Jarrett said.
HPV is becoming a major health issue for college-aged students, and especially for women. According to information published by UHS, up to 43 percent of sexually-active college students are infected with HPV. The problem is that without being tested for it, many students do not know they have the disease.
“Particularly on men you can’t see genital warts. The warts can develop inside the vagina or anus and you’d never see them,” Jarrett said. Up to 70 percent of those infected may not even know they have contracted the disease. If left untreated, several types of HPV can cause cervical cancer in women.
Nina Clark, a University Hospital clinical associate professor in infectious diseases, said STDs can also facilitate the contraction of other diseases.
“Chlymadia, gonorrhea and syphilis can facilitate the transmission of HIV. If someone is unaware they have chlamydia and have sex with someone with HIV, they are more likely to contract HIV than someone who is not infected,” Clark said.
Information published by the National Institute for Health estimates that two-thirds of all STDs are contracted by people under 25 years of age. Stanton said that age itself is not necessarily a risk factor, but does correlate with other determinants of health status such as access to health care or health care -seeking behavior. She added that some students may not be aware of contracting an STD or be able to treat it if they can not afford health care.
Additional NIH publications suggest that one reason for the high numbers of college students with STDs is that students have become sexually active earlier and married later, allowing them more sexual partners than was the norm in previous decades.
“If someone has had multiple partners, two or more in the last year, their risk increases,” said Robert Winfield, director of UHS.
Stanton added that young people increase their risk of acquiring STDs not only by having multiple partners but also by engaging in unprotected sex and for women, by choosing partners older than themselves. She said that the only way to be sure not to contract an STD is to practice abstinence.
“Our prevention messages are abstinence; then, if you are sexually active, to be in a monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner and for others who are sexually active to use latex condoms consistently and correctly,” Stanton said.
Jarrett said that students sometimes opt not to use condoms because discussing it can be awkward.
“People are capable of talking about sex in all types of settings but when it’s one-on-one contact, it gets sticky,” she said. She added that she’s noticed that on college campuses students often think being in a relationship for two or three weeks makes them ready to stop using protection.
“By taking off the physical barrier or condom, people think they can take down the emotional barrier too, essentially saying ‘I’m ready to be in this relationship,'” Jarrett said.
This can be incredibly risky if students haven’t discussed their sexual history with their partners or have not been recently tested for STDs. Jarrett added that communication is an integral part of safe sex.
“People make a lot of assumptions based on appearance or socio-economics, but you can never know for sure unless you talk to them about their sexual history,” Jarrett said.
Although most students associate condom use with intercourse, Clark said that condoms are necessary even when engaging in oral sex.
“People think oral sex is completely safe and can’t transmit HIV but that’s not true. We encourage people to use condoms even with oral sex,” Clark said.
Dental dams can also be used as protection during oral sex. UHS offers pamphlets illustrating how to use a dental dam or how to make one out of a condom. Jarrett added that plastic wraps, like SaranWrap, could be used to create a homemade dental dam.
Although abstinence is the only sure way to prevent contracting an STD, information published by the NIH recommends avoiding having sex during menstruation.
HIV-infected women are more likely to be infectious and HIV-uninfected women are probably more susceptible to contracting HIV during that time. In addition, Jarrett recommends using a lubricant with a condom because it reduces friction, making the condom less likely to break.
Clark said anyone with multiple partners or who feels they have engaged in risky behavior should also be tested. “You have to realize that when you sleep with someone, you are potentially sleeping with everyone else they’ve had contact with,” she said. Jarrett recommends that women have annual pap smears to detect such diseases as HPV.
Students can receive testing for STDs at UHS for little or no cost. HIV testing, which is done through a blood sample, is free and results are usually available within two weeks.
For a fee of $2,1 students can receive the results within three days. For students who would prefer oral testing, there is a fee of $10. Appointments can be made by calling 764-8325. HIV home test kits are available at the UHS pharmacy for $45 and condoms and lubricant are available for free or reduced prices.