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Women and Sexually Transmitted Diseases: The Role of Public Health

Gail Bolan image

As the director of the Division of STD Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), I have the unique opportunity to glimpse sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention efforts from several vantage points. One of the most outstanding views is the federal government working hand-in-hand with local governments to prevent STDs and help protect the health of women. And as many others have written in this blog series for STD Awareness Month 2013, it takes the work of many to ensure everyone has access to health care.

Why is STD screening particularly important for women?

The annual number of new sexually transmitted infections is roughly equal among young women and young men. However, the consequences of untreated STDs are often worse for young women, who disproportionately bear the long-term consequences of untreated STDs. These consequences include chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, increased chances of infertility, and increased risk of HIV infection. However, these women’s lives can change with appropriate screening and treatment. And, on the population-level, these changes can come about with coordinated efforts.

What are public health agencies doing to address STDs in women?

In partnership with state, local, and territorial STD prevention programs, CDC analyzes public health information to identify changes or trends in a community’s health status. Public health programs can use this information to build upon a community’s strengths and establish a community health improvement plan and action steps.

Public health STD programs also provide assurance that all women receive appropriate STD screening and treatment wherever they may seek health care. For example, we know that 45 percent of STD cases are identified by private physicians, HMOs, and hospitals. As a result, STD programs are expanding their partnerships to ensure that appropriate STD screening and related infertility prevention activities are available in these settings.

At the same time, public health programs continue to ensure STD clinics, other health department clinics, and family planning providers are able to provide high-quality STD screening and infertility prevention services. Assuring higher screening rates at all clinical settings serving women at risk of STDs can increase the number of cases that are identified and treated, reducing rates of harmful STD consequences.

How can public health agencies promote STD prevention?

Sexually active women have a variety of tools available to help them avoid infection. Public health agencies can empower women with messages that underscore the importance of protecting their health. STD programs also can utilize their partnerships with private providers to ensure that female patients are made aware of what they can do to prevent STDs, including:

  • Abstinence—Abstinence is effective in preventing HIV and STDs. Abstaining from sex means not having any type of sex at all, including oral, anal, or vaginal sex. All people have the right to choose if and when to have sex.

  • Open communication—It is important that partners discuss STDs and their sexual histories before having sex.

  • Condoms—Partners should also discuss and negotiate safer sex, including use of condoms, female condoms, and dental dams.

  • Monogamy—Monogamy means only having sex with one person who only has sex with you. Being in a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner is one of the most reliable ways to avoid STDs.

Where can I get more information?

Division of STD Prevention Centers for Disease Control and Prevention www.cdc.gov/std

CDC-INFO Contact Center 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) Email: http://www.cdc.gov/cdc-info/requestform.html

Highlighted Resources

Sexually transmitted disease (STD) programs do an enormous amount of work to protect the public’s health with continually declining resources. There are many opportunities associated with the evolution of health care in the United States.

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