By Dr. Leana Wen, President of Planned Parenthood
As an ER doctor, I have seen firsthand how crucial it is to prevent, detect, and treat STIs early. STIs are spread through sexual contact and they can cause devastating disease when they are not diagnosed or treated. STIs — including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis — can lead to life-changing consequences including infertility, miscarriages, and chronic pain.
There are many methods of prevention and treatment, but rates of STIs are skyrocketing in the United States. In 2017, the number of cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis reached an all-time high of more than two million cases. Rates of syphilis rose by nearly 75 percent between 2013 and 2017.
This is why policies like the Trump-Pence administration’s Title X gag rule are so dangerous. This Title X rule, which was released in February and is scheduled to take effect in May, would dismantle the Title X program that provides healthcare to 4 million low-income Americans. STI testing and treatment are included in that care.
If Title X is dismantled, crucial health services would become unattainable to millions of women, like Mary, a young woman who came to a Planned Parenthood health center for birth control after she recently lost her insurance. Mary talked with her doctor about her options, and she decided that the best choice for her was an implant, a form of long-acting reversible contraceptive (LARC). She expected to pay $50 a month for a birth control prescription but ended up paying $70 for birth control that would last her three years.
The same day, Mary’s sister, who did not have insurance coverage, either, visited a Planned Parenthood health center for a pap smear and a test for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). She also received the care she sought. Thanks to a federal program, Title X, that provides affordable birth control and reproductive health care to women with low incomes, she did not have to pay for her life-saving cervical cancer screen and STI tests.
As the president of Planned Parenthood, I have heard countless stories like Mary’s and her sister’s. Each time, I’m reminded of the importance of making sex education and reproductive health services available and easily accessible.
I firmly believe that no one should have to forego quality medical care because they can’t afford it or don’t know who to ask for help. Health care is a human right, and sexual and reproductive health is an important part of that care.
For Get Yourself Tested month, I want to share three actions you can take to protect yourself and your loved ones:
1. Get tested and treated for STIs.
Every single one of our Planned Parenthood health centers around the country offers STI and HIV testing. STIs do not discriminate — anyone who is sexually active could be at risk.
The best time to get tested is before you have sex, not afterward, so that you can ensure that you won’t pass on a possible STI to someone else. Appointments to get tested are quick and the results confidential.
There is no way of knowing definitively if you have an STI until you get tested. Many STIs, including chlamydia and gonorrhea, can leave you in silent discomfort for years, and can proceed to a dangerous infection, called pelvic inflammatory disease, that can lead to infertility. Do not wait until you have symptoms – get tested now.
2. Practice safe sex.
Condoms, female condoms, and dental dams are barriers that prevent you from both spreading and contracting an STI. But they’re only really effective when you use them every single time you have sex.
3. Get vaccinated against HPV.
HPV is the most common STI in the U.S. It’s so common that nearly every person who does not get the vaccine and is sexually active will get HPV at some point in their life. This infection is spread through sex, and the good news is that it’s highly preventable with available screening tests and a vaccine.
The HPV vaccine protects against cancers caused by HPV infection. Typically, the HPV vaccine is given to kids who are 11 or 12 years old, and it’s also recommended for young people up until age 26. This vaccine prevents you from getting certain types of HPV in the first place, so it’s best to receive it before you become sexually active.
The vaccine, which takes just a few minutes to get, can be life-saving – it could prevent over 30,000 cancers each year in men and women caused by the HPV infection. You can get the vaccine at many Planned Parenthood health centers, clinics, and local health departments.
STIs are common and can cause harm to your health, but they can easily be prevented, diagnosed, and treated. Start by knowing your options and asking questions when you have them. When it comes to your health, no question is insignificant.
Most importantly, you don’t have to go through it alone. Just like for Mary, the doors of Planned Parenthood are open for you. Each year, Planned Parenthood health centers provide more than 4.7 million STI tests and treatment. In 2017, our health centers diagnosed almost 250,000 STIs – these are cases of infection that, without proper screening, may have been diagnosed late or not at all, and possibly even progressed to devastating complications. We also offer antibiotic treatment of STIs.
April is Get Yourself Tested month. Now is the time to go out and Get Yourself Tested to take control of your own health!