Visiting the doctor may not seem like a priority when you don’t feel sick, but regular checkups are a key component of keeping yourself healthy. The same is true when it comes to getting tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Unfortunately, not enough people get the preventive care they need to stay safe and healthy, and that is particularly true for men.
At Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and at Tapestry Health, we see thousands of patients every year who come to us to take charge of their sexual health by getting tested for STIs. Many of these patients are men who know getting tested is an important step in staying safe, healthy, and happy. Still, some feel embarrassment or anxiety around getting tested or don’t think they need to get tested at all. That needs to change.
This National Men’s Health Week, we encourage men to talk openly with their partners about testing and their STI status, and to make time for a routine STI test. After all, getting tested is the only way to know your status for sure since many STIs cause no symptoms. For example, 90 percent of men with chlamydia have no symptoms, and, on average, people with HIV don’t develop symptoms for 10 years. Despite great progress, STIs still have a serious impact in our communities.
Cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in the U.S. all increased in 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently announced. Overall, half of all STIs strike people under 25, even though they represent only a quarter of those who are sexually active. Men who have sex with men, particularly young African-American men, have the highest rates of HIV infection nationwide.
As a community, we can start lowering these rates by encouraging STI testing and treatment, and making sure everyone has the care and guidance they need. We must ensure that everyone, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation, understands how important it is to get tested and take care of themselves year round. To do this, we must all work together to promote open communication around these issues and remove the shadow that hangs over discussions of STIs, safer sex, and healthy relationships.
These discussions should start early and can be facilitated with comprehensive sexuality education that teaches all young people how to prevent STIs, practice safer sex, and normalize conversations around routine STI testing. Already, most young men use condoms the first time they have sex, but a 2013 survey of U.S. high school students found that 41 percent of those who were sexually active, did not use a condom the last time they had sex. We can do better. We need to support preventive measures, such as needle exchange programs and access to condoms, to prevent the spread of STIs, including HIV. We need to ensure that everyone feels comfortable talking with their health care providers and partners about getting tested.
As the leading providers of sexual and reproductive health care in Western Massachusetts, we know firsthand the importance of these measures. Tapestry Health provides testing and treatment in all four Western MA counties, both in clinics and through education and outreach to schools and in the community. Planned Parenthood provides sexuality education, peer education, parent workshops, a sexual health counseling and referral hotline to answer sexual health questions, and STI testing and treatment at its Springfield health center. All our health centers also offer the HPV vaccine, which is important for both young men and young women to receive. These tests are quick and simple, and all care is nonjudgmental and confidential.
This Men’s Health Week and every week of the year, let’s remember that sexual health is an important component of physical and emotional health for all people – including men. We know that access to testing and treatment, along with education about STI prevention, play a key role in keeping everyone safe and healthy. If we want to help young men make their health a life-long priority, it’s time we start talking about sexual health and safer sex practices.
Cheryl Zoll, CEO, Tapestry Health, and Dr. Jennifer Childs-Roshak, President and CEO, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts
July 06, 2016