While sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a concern for all, statistics show that Black people are particularly at risk. A Brown Bag Lunch Webinar hosted by the Black AIDS Institute in November 2017 highlighted some structural, community and individual interventions that can make a difference.
There are three basic types of STIs:
- Viral STIs are caused by viruses. Some clear up on their own, while others are treated with antiviral medications. Examples include herpes and the human papillomavirus.
- Bacterial STIs are caused by bacteria. They are treated with antibiotics. Examples include syphilis and gonorrhea.
- Parasitic STIs are caused by parasites. Examples include scabies and pubic lice, and parasitic STIs are treated by methods such as lotions, antibiotics and rinses.
The webinar, led by David C. Johnson, senior public health adviser for the Office of Health Equity, Division of STD Prevention for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), started off with a look at statistics affecting Black communities. Among the findings: Blacks had higher reported rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in 2016 than other races, according to the CDC. MSM in particular have been hard-hit by syphilis.
Looking Beyond the Numbers
Several factors put people at risk of transmitting STIs:
- Stigma often keeps people from getting tested or sharing their diagnosis with sexual partners.
- Misinformation about STIs keeps people from getting tested or believing that they are at risk.
- Difficulties using condoms contribute to the risk of transmitting STIs.
There are also some myths about STIs that many people buy into, said Erica Lillquist, a program manager for the Black AIDS Institute. For example, some people believe that you can tell by looking whether a person has an STI, which is false, since many STIs have no visible symptoms. Another harmful myth is that only people who have multiple sexual partners need to be concerned about STIs, when, in reality, you can get STIs from a single partner.
Not only can people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) become infected with other STIs, but STIs can also contribute to someone’s risk of HIV. Some STIs cause open sores, which may heighten someone’s chances of contracting HIV.
Encouraging people to get tested for STIs is critical to lowering the rates of infection in Black communities.
Setting Up Interventions That Work
The webinar went on to cover how structural, community and individual interventions can all make a difference in the fight against STIs.
Among the structural interventions that can help decrease the transmission of STIs:
- Programs that look at social issues that contribute to the risk of contracting STIs, such as racism and poverty;
- Training for health-care providers on cultural humility and how to create an environment that makes it easier for vulnerable populations to discuss issues of sexual health;
- Partnerships between clinical and nonclinical sites to support the needs of those populations that are most vulnerable to STIs.
There are also community interventions that can lead to better health outcomes in the Black community. Among them:
- Programs that train LGBTQ youths to work with health-care providers on how to better serve LGBTQ populations;
- Programs that increase awareness of the risks of contracting STIs at historically black colleges and universities. Such programs have helped to change students’ attitudes and behaviors surrounding sexual health.
When it comes to decreasing the risk of STIs in Black communities, every person can play a part. Individual Interventions that make a difference include peer education and events designed to bring the community together to talk about sexual health.
In order to create a healthier community, sexual health must become a topic that people in the Black community feel comfortable talking about and taking action on. “What we must do is beware of social and cultural issues that stigmatize, demonize and isolate vulnerable populations of color,” Johnson said.
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.