I am not a doctor. And in all likelihood, neither are you. When it comes time to learn about a partner’s sexual health status, I, like you, would simply like to march down to Fletcher Avenue, talk my doctor’s ear off about my handsome prospect and await mutual positive results.
But the current state of knowing how sexually healthy you are sometimes has me feeling like I need a professional degree. It’s mind-bogglingly complicated and has the potential to turn upside down some of the general rules about sex and prevention. Particularly, testing conditions for human papilloma virus and herpes, two of the most prevalent sexually transmitted infections on campus, have me pulling my locks out.
How bad is it?
Well, it’s so bad that, in the instance of some herpes blood tests, a positive or negative test result can’t necessarily be taken at face value. Even though men and women have equal chances of getting genital warts — a symptom of HPV — they don’t have equal access to testing or vaccinations against it.
In order to further clarify this precarious situation, I sat down with Medical Director of UHS Dr. Robert Ernst to get the skinny, one STI at a time, on what a student can expect when they walk into UHS with the intentions of knowing their status.
I knew that something was up when I read the disclaimer from the Centers for Disease Control’s most recent herpes fact sheet. It stated that while a positive blood test result most likely indicated a genital herpes infection, the results “were not always clear-cut.” And Ernst agreed. “Some of my colleagues project that herpes blood tests could have as low as a 50 percent accuracy rate,” he said.
And then there is a matter of the price tag: a whopping $200. Given the testing inefficiency, students who are curious must do so on their own dime. And there aren’t any student activities fees to cover this.
If students book an appointment to know their herpes infection status, they are given a visual inspection — or in other words, a look-see. Culture tests, a process that involves taking a sample from a sore and testing it in a laboratory, are done after a student has an outbreak. In 2007, 25 percent of herpes “culture tests” at UHS came back positive. While there is treatment that can manage the outbreaks, there is no cure.
In terms of prevention, condoms help, but they won’t protect you completely because the disease can be transmitted when your pubic areas touch. WebMd.com insists that there is a vaccine in the works, but there’s no definitive sign on the date of delivery.
HPV is a somewhat different story. To complicate the whole gender aspect, Dr. Ernst said the higher risk of cervical cancer in women means HPV tests are only done on women. According to the American Cancer Society, 11,070 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2008. The CDC’s recent fact sheet states that men can get penile and anal cancers, but it’s much less common.
Here’s the testing process: University Health Service conducts HPV follow-up tests when a woman gets an abnormal result from her Pap smear. Out of 4,500 pap tests conducted in 2008, less than 10 percent had some degree of abnormality. Ernst projected that 30 to 50 percent of women acquire HPV at some point in college.
Now the good news about HPV is that a majority of infections eventually clear up. While Pap smears can serve as a way to catch cervical cancer early, all bets are off with genital warts — something both men and women can get. The bottom line is: If men were tested for HPV, partners — both male and female — who wanted assurance about their boyfriend’s genital warts status could get it.
Prevention options? Similar deal with herpes: condoms reduce risk, bare crotch rubbing can lead to infection. The upside for HPV is, according to Ernst, “all the chips go to vaccination.” But again, women can only get the vaccine, which can cost a total of $500 at UHS — also not covered by student activities fees.
So where does that leave us now? In the absence of comprehensive testing options, the CDC endorses abstinence to ward off HPV and abstinence and long-term, mutual monogamy to reduce the risk of getting herpes. This should be surprising, since the CDC’s mission statement, according to its website, is not to weigh in on the monogamy debate but to “create the expertise, information, and tools that people and communities need to protect their health.”
If the CDC is on the front lines of advocating for ground-breaking research on the herpes vaccine or against one-sided HPV testing and vaccinations, its fact sheets should reflect that and not this monogamy-promoting, abstinence-only nonsense. In the end, STI prevention efforts should be aimed at creating a straightforward, comprehensive testing process that enables anyone who is sexually active to truly know their status.
Rose Afriyie is the Daily’s sex and relationships columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.