Plan STD educational outreaches for April

Best target audience is teens and young adults

"There are about 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted infectious diseases each year in the United States, and they don't just happen to people who are promiscuous or reckless. They can and do happen to anyone. Even folks with few partners, even people who consistently use protection can still be at risk for a lot of STIs [sexually transmitted infections]," says Fred Wyand, media and communications manager for the American Social Health Association (ASHA) in Research Triangle Park, NC.

That is why the association has declared April National STD Awareness Month. Getting the magnitude of the problem out to the public is important, Wyand says.

There are other issues that need to be addressed. There is a need for safer sex practices, such as condom use, even if both partners look and feel fine. He explains the absence of symptoms is not a good indicator of whether someone may have been exposed to an STD that can be passed to a partner.

People need to be proactive in talking about sexual health with their physicians, nurses, and other health care providers, adds Wyand. While these conversations are awkward, they should be encouraged because this is a good way to determine if testing is recommended, he says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends all sexually active women below the age of 25 be tested annually for Chlamydia, a genital infection frequently found in sexually active adolescents and young adults. Wyand says research shows most people aren't tested for Chlamydia until age 30, even though the vast majority of infections are found in younger people.

"Women can have Chlamydia and not even know they have been exposed to it until the infection starts to spread and they begin to have problems. That is why having conversations with health care providers is important," says Wyand.

There are a few stumbling blocks to effective education, however. Wyand says there is stigma to having an STD, so it is important to normalize the discussion by making sure people understand that it is a massive problem. Having an STD does not mean a person did something wrong or let his or her guard down. "No matter what, a person can be at risk," says Wyand.

Lack of access to health care in poor communities also is a barrier to education, diagnosis, and treatment of STDs. Wyand recommends providing a list of free or low-cost clinics along with education about STDs to address this issue.

Targeting the right populations

When designing an outreach for National STD Awareness Month, consider how to reach the patient population most in need of education, advises Wyand. About half the new cases of STDs in the United States each year occur in people under the age of 25, so teens and college-age students are more likely to be impacted.

Comprehensive sexual education messages are important, says Wyand. Start with abstinence as the best way to prevent an STD but discuss prevention tools for those who are sexually active. Talk about how valuable condoms can be if used consistently as well as limiting the number of sexual partners. Safe sex practices include having only one sexual partner.

Another target audience would be poor communities because many who live there lack health insurance and access to affordable, convenient care.

"If you are not able to be tested and treated, it can become a vicious cycle for there is a greater likelihood of complications from untreated STDs such as Chlamydia, which can spread to a woman's upper reproductive tract if not treated and lead to infertility and chronic pelvic pain," says Wyand. According to Wyand, research is increasingly showing that people who have one STD are more likely to contract another if exposed. This includes HIV.

Presenting clear facts to dispel misinformation is important. Wyand, who has 10 years experience as a sexual health educator, says when he was in college he was aware of STDs but expected he would have symptoms if he had contracted one.

Providing resources is helpful as well. In addition to a list of free or low-cost clinics, compile a list of health web sites that target various patient populations such as men, women, and minorities. A good place to begin this research is the ASHA web site (www.ashastd.org), which has links to sites focusing on herpes, HPV, HIV/AIDS, sexual health, condoms, teens, and more.

Also encourage people to have clear communication with their physicians and their sexual partners. A message board on the ASHA web site provides an opportunity for people to anonymously ask questions, interact with others who have an STD, or just observe to see how others are coping.

"The best way to observe the month is through education because that leads to empowerment and reduces the stigma and embarrassment factor," says Wyand.