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April is STD Awareness Month

by Andria Apostolou, PhD, MPH, IHS National STD Program, Division of Epidemiology and Disease Prevention, IHS

April is recognized as Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Awareness Month and brings attention to the nearly 20 million new STDs that occur in the United States each year. While STDs affect all racial and ethnic groups, American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations are affected at a higher rate.

In November 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its latest Sexually Transmitted Diseases Surveillance Report Exit Disclaimer: You Are Leaving , showing the highest rates of STDs in 20 years. The report identifies that in 2015, AI/ANs had the second highest rates for both chlamydia and gonorrhea infections, and AI/AN women had the second highest primary and secondary syphilis rates among all race groups. Reports of congenital syphilis (CS), a disease that occurs when a mother with syphilis passes the infection on to her baby during pregnancy, is particularly concerning among AI/ANs.

Raising Awareness

The IHS National STD program is committed to continue raising awareness of STDs as a high priority health issue and supporting partnerships, collaborations, policies and education that help reduce the impact of sexually transmitted diseases in Indian Country. The consistent use of clinical reminders in the Electronic Health Record (EHR), and patient and provider education are important and proven interventions for improving STD screening rates and disease prevention. In an effort to stem the rising rates of STDs in Indian Country, the IHS National STD Program, in collaboration with CDC, has developed additional STD educational and technical assistance resources that can be used as-is or adapted by individuals and clinicians to guide local STD screening and treatment efforts. These resources include sample policies and protocols that are available to sites to adopt or adapt based on sites’ needs and local epidemiology. National EHR reminders prompting STD screenings for targeted patient groups are available for deployment at local sites to improve chlamydia and other STD screening rates.

What you can do

STDs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, can be asymptomatic. Untreated STDs can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and infertility. STD infections also increase the likelihood of contracting and transmitting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).  Although readily preventable when detected during early pregnancy, unrecognized and untreated CS can cause severe illness, miscarriage, stillbirth and early infant death.

STD screening is important for early detection and treatment. National recommendations advise for an annual chlamydia screening for all women between 16-24 years of age. In addition, other high risk groups such as pregnant women and Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) should be also be screened. All pregnant women should be screened at their first prenatal visit and women at high risk should be rescreened early in their third trimester and again at delivery.

Knowing your STD status is a critical step to stopping STD transmission. If you know you are infected you can take steps to protect yourself and your partner. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider to test you for STDs. Many STDs can be diagnosed and treated.

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Andria Apostolou, PhD, MPH, IHS National STD Program, Division of Epidemiology and Disease Prevention, IHS

Andria Apostolou, PhD, MPH, is an epidemiologist with the Division of Epidemiology and Disease Prevention and leads the IHS National STD Program. She serves as a subject matter expert for IHS on STD and infectious disease issues that impact American Indian and Alaska Native communities.