The symptoms for many sexually transmitted diseases (STD) can be very mild, or be confused with symptoms for other diseases. Very often, STDs do not even produce any symptoms. Despite beginning in a seemingly innocuous manner, many of these diseases come with serious consequences when left untreated, impacting a person’s health, reproductive ability, and general quality of life. As such, early detection is critical to preventing complications and curbing the spread of disease
STDs are actually quite easy to detect – thanks to progress in medical research – and many are relatively easy to cure. Even in the case of STDs that are not curable, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), there are still medicines that keep the disease in check, prolong a person’s life, and maintain a quality of life similar to that of healthy people. However, the number of STD cases remain quite high. The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 1 million STDs are acquired daily worldwide.
In the case of developing countries, the issue of high STD numbers are generally associated with poor access to healthcare – and consequently poor access to diagnostic kits and treatment. However, even developed countries such as the United States are reporting an increase in STDs such as syphilis and gonorrhea. This points to other potential problems that need to be addressed by more than efforts in medical research.
One very significant barrier towards early STD detection and treatment exists in people’s minds rather than in the tangible world. However, this does not mean that addressing the barrier is any less important. Here are some of these problems, which have been identified in a few studies, and the ways in which they can be addressed.
1) Stigma and shame
Positive diagnosis of an STD has long been associated with negative psychological effects, stemming from stigma and shame. Portrayals of STDs in literature – which shed light on how contemporary society viewed the topic – painted a highly negative picture of the disease, depicting infected people as morally degenerate social outcasts.
While outward scorn and vehemence against STD-positive people may have been much toned down in our times, the idea of STDs remain a taboo topic, one that is discussed in whispers and away from general social discourse. Current research on the psychological effects of positive STD diagnosis show that reactions to diagnosis are fraught with feelings of stigma and shame. This contributes to feelings of social isolation and even social withdrawal, because many STD-positive people feel unable to tell their friends and families about their diagnosis, unlike for other diseases such as cancer. Therefore, obtaining emotional support for coping with an STD can be very difficult. Such feelings may even contribute to the development of other mental health issues such as depression.
If you receive a positive diagnosis, try to see if you can obtain support from family members and friends whom you believe will be helpful and non-judgmental about the diagnosis. If this is proving to be a challenge, seeking recommendations for professional counseling from your medical provider is also an option. Don’t give up! Your diagnosis does not define you or your worth. You are just as deserving of help and understanding as everyone else.
2) Misconceptions about “who is at risk of STD”
Many people who are diagnosed with an STD express shock at the diagnosis, as they had believed that “it wouldn’t happen to me”. This appears to be the result of misconceptions behind the type of people at risk of STDs. STDs are stereotypically associated with prostitutes and seediness, even though in reality STDs can be acquired by anybody who is sexually active, regardless of their social class or socio-economic circumstances.
This can be addressed by improving awareness and educating the public on STDs. However, such misconceptions are also born from the stigma and shame linked to STDs, and these require a drastic change in society’s perception of STDs, which is a much more difficult thing to accomplish.
3) Fear and anxiety about partner notification
Partner notification is a necessary step in breaking the cycle of transmission. However, this is understandably also extremely difficult on the part of the person who received the positive diagnosis. They may fear their partner’s response for several reasons. For instance, they may have to disclose to their current partner about having had several sexual partners before their current relationship, which may then jeopardise the relationship. Another problem that surfaces, especially with former partners, is when a former relationship has ended badly, but the person has to contact their former partner about their diagnosis.
For people living in the United States and Canada, there is a resource called inSPOT (http://www.inspot.org/Default.aspx), which will notify your partners anonymously and let them know that they should get tested, if you are not able to or are uncomfortable with informing them about your diagnosis.