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What does STI awareness mean?

 April is a sexually exhausting month. I hope you've had the chance to enjoy some of the important and inspiring events that have gone on for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Out and About Month, National Day of Silence, Break the Silence Wisconsin and Sexual Health Week. And before April comes to a close, I want to plug one more event that's near and dear to my heart: STD Awareness Month.

 
The Centers for Disease Control describes STD Awareness Month as "an annual observance to raise awareness about the impact of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) on the health of Americans and the importance of individuals discussing sexual health with their healthcare providers and, if sexually active, their partners."
 
The individual and public health impacts of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and STDs are pretty significant. There's really no difference between the terms "STD" and "STI"—personally, I prefer the "infection" phrasing, since most of them are caused by specific pathogens and are easily cured or treated, and are not chronic conditions that disrupt normal functioning. But there's really no difference other than terminology.
 
At any rate, according to the CDC, the U.S. spends around $13 billion every year on the diagnosis and treatment of STIs. Nearly two million cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea were diagnosed in 2009. Up to 15 percent of women who do not receive chlamydia treatment will develop pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to chronic pelvic pain or infertility.
 
Blah, blah, blah. While the real and potential health impacts of STIs can't be overstated, a pile of big numbers and scary facts isn't that helpful for most of us. So what does it really mean to be "aware" this STD Awareness Month?
 
Awareness means knowing our own STI status. One in six Americans has genital herpes, according to the CDC—but most (up to 90 percent) don't know they have it. Check yourself and get checked. Get to know your down-theres so you can tell if any new lumps or bumps crop up. Free urine screenings for chlamydia and gonorrhea are available at University Health Services. Vaginal pap smears can be obtained for HPV screening. Regardless of one's risk factors, the CDC recommends routine HIV screening for all adults, and blood testing is free for students at UHS.
 
Awareness means knowing our partner's STI status. While most of us know asking about STIs is a healthy, responsible thing to do, it can still feel awkward, invasive, accusatory or just plain unsexy. Ask anyway, and try to do it confidently and with a smile. To paraphrase Charles Swindoll, I believe that STI conversations are 10 percent what comes out of your mouth and 90 percent how it comes out of your mouth. And if a potential partner wigs out, it's probably best not to have sex with them anyway.
 
Awareness means knowing how STIs are spread. Not all STIs are created equal. If we know the most common routes of transmission for the most common STIs here on campus (HPV, chlamydia and herpes; skin-to-skin contact, genital secretions and skin-to-skin contact, respectively) then we can have a better idea of what our risks are and how we can minimize them.
Awareness means knowing ways to protect ourselves and our partners from STIs and their sequelae. While many STIs are curable and all are treatable, they are also preventable. It's important to think about what methods of prevention will work best for us.
 
Perhaps we don't have sex, or we only have sex with one person, or we only engage in certain sexual activities. Perhaps we use condoms, sex dams or other barriers that we can get for free from many campus orgs like Sex Out Loud, the LGBT Campus Center, PAVE or the Campus Women's Center.
 
Perhaps we get vaccinated for things like HPV or hepatitis. Perhaps we get tested regularly and obtain expedited partner therapy (EPT) for our partners if we test positive. EPT has been legal in Wisconsin since last year, and it allows physicians to give two antibiotic prescriptions to a person who tests positive for chlamydia, gonorrhea or trichomoniasis: One for the person who tests positive, and one for that person to give to their partner.
Awareness means knowing it's OK not to have all the answers. Despite the abundance of resources on campus, misinformation—much of it hateful—about STIs is everywhere. If we don't know, or if we think we know but we're not quite sure, it's important to ask. UHS and Planned Parenthood are just a phone call away. The CDC has a fantastic, easily accessible website detailing facts and statistics on STIs. 

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