Lack of Awareness Heightens Risk for Sexually Transmitted Diseases

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Sexual Health and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD)

New survey results unveiled today by the American Social Health Association (ASHA), an organization dedicated to preventing sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), suggest that lack of awareness may put Americans at risk for contracting STDs. While an overwhelming majority surveyed (84 percent) felt that they take the necessary precautions to protect themselves against STDs, many people do not use protection on a regular basis when they engage in sexual activities*.

Furthermore, over half were unsure or had not been vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B, also known as vaccine-preventable hepatitis (VPH), which are the only STDs that can be prevented through immunization. It is important to note that hepatitis C, which can also be sexually transmitted, cannot be prevented via vaccination. The survey was conducted to assess the sexual attitudes, behaviors and knowledge of STDs of Americans aged 18-35 as part of an educational initiative surrounding STD Awareness Month in April.

In addition, the survey showed some contrary findings when it comes to what people think they know about STDs. From a list of common conditions including heart disease, diabetes and depression, Americans said they felt the most knowledgeable about STDs. Interestingly, they said they felt the least knowledgeable about viral hepatitis, suggesting that Americans dissociate viral hepatitis from STDs, with the two at opposite ends of the awareness scale. In fact, a large number failed to recognize that hepatitis A and hepatitis B can be sexually transmitted.

"The findings in our survey are quite disturbing. Despite the fact that STDs are extremely widespread and have severe consequences, it is troubling that there is such a large portion of people who still feel invincible," noted James R. Allen, M.D., M.P.H, president and chief executive officer of ASHA. "In addition, people's lack of awareness about the various STDs only underscores the need for continued education to prevent the spread of these serious diseases."

One in every four Americans will contract an STD sometime in their lifetime. In 2000 alone, there were more than 18.9 million new infections, which are a significant burden on the economy, costing an estimated $8 billion to diagnose and treat. And yet nearly 7 in 10 (68 percent) of people surveyed are not concerned about contracting an STD.

Viral Hepatitis: The Least Known STD

Regarding people's knowledge of specific STDs, viral hepatitis ranked the lowest (compared to HIV, herpes, gonorrhea, and chlamydia). Alarmingly, many people did not realize that hepatitis A and hepatitis B can be sexually transmitted (57 percent and 44 percent, respectively). In addition, about half did not know that hepatitis A (55 percent) and hepatitis B (42 percent) are vaccine-preventable. Nearly all (97 percent) people knew that HIV can be sexually transmitted. However, hepatitis B can be 100 times more contagious than HIV and is more common, with more than 1.25 million people living with hepatitis B in the United States. In fact, 1 out of every 20 people will acquire hepatitis B sometime in their life, although many will be unaware of it because the infection often doesn't cause any signs or symptoms.

America Silent about STDs

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One of the most disturbing findings is that people are not communicating about STDs, thereby putting themselves unknowingly at risk for contracting and spreading diseases. In the recent survey, the vast majority (93 percent) believe their current or most recent partner didn't have an STD, yet about 1 out of 3 people have never discussed STDs with their partner. About half (53 percent) said their partner had been tested. Beyond reluctance to discuss STDs with their sex partners, respondents also appeared hesitant to seek information from their physicians. Despite the fact that nearly 70 percent of people rely on healthcare providers for health information, less than half of those surveyed have ever spoken to their providers about STDs. Interestingly, among those who are sexually active, the most common reason cited for not talking to their doctor was that they didn't feel they were at risk.

"For years we have known that perceived stigma has been a barrier to discussion of STDs, and this latest survey shows that people simply don't believe they are at risk," says Dr. James R. Allen. "This false sense of security is problematic, as it can lead to exposure to serious, incurable diseases. We encourage everyone to speak to their providers about ways to protect themselves from these infections, including available vaccines."

How to "Get the STDetails on Hepatitis"

To provide the public with information about the sexual transmission of hepatitis A and hepatitis B, ASHA has developed an educational brochure. In addition, a one-page checklist for risk factors is available to help people assess whether or not they may be at risk for vaccine-preventable hepatitis. Since the survey showed that the Internet is the most common resource for health information, ASHA is making these materials available on their website, http://www.ASHASTD.org

Together, hepatitis A and hepatitis B cause more than 170,000 infections and more than 5,000 deaths each year in the U.S. About one-quarter of hepatitis A cases can be attributed to household (sharing living quarters with an infected person) or sexual contact. In addition, certain populations may be at increased risk for contracting hepatitis A, such as men who have sex with men. The hepatitis A virus can be spread during oral-anal sex by the contaminated stool of someone who has the disease. Hepatitis B can be spread from person to person via direct or indirect contact with infected blood or body fluids such as semen and vaginal secretions. Over one half (54 percent) of hepatitis B infections are transmitted sexually.

Symptoms of hepatitis may include fatigue, jaundice, nausea and vomiting and abdominal pain. Sometimes, however, no symptoms are present and it's difficult to ascertain whether someone has hepatitis A or hepatitis B. It is therefore important that people take steps to protect themselves. Vaccination is the most effective method of prevention of hepatitis A and hepatitis B. There are safe and effective vaccines that can provide long-term protection.

About ASHA

The American Social Health Association is a non-profit organization chartered in 1914 and dedicated to improving the health of people, families, and communities, with a focus on preventing sexually transmitted diseases and their harmful consequences.

Survey Background

This survey was conducted online by Harris Interactive

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