An estimated nineteen million new STIs occur in the United States each year. Unfortunately, women, especially African American women, Latinas, and American Indian/Alaska Native women, account for a disproportionate number of these new infections. Anatomical differences place women at greater risk than men of contracting sexually transmitted infections, and age-related physiological changes in the cervix make risk of infection even higher for adolescent women. Further, the presence of any STI, both those with visible, open sores and those that are invisible and asymptomatic, increases a woman's risk of contracting HIV. The great disparity in infection rates among women, as well as between men and women, calls attention to the need for new methods of protection, new prevention strategies and further education and information about STIs.
What are the most common STIs?
Chlamydia: Genital chlamydia infection is the most commonly reported bacterial STI in the United States. The CDC estimates that 2.8 million new cases of chlamydia occur each year. The CDC reports that women have reported rates of chlamydia infection three times higher than men. Additionally, African American women have rates of chlamydia infection seven times higher than white women. Even though chlamydia can be treated cheaply and easily once it is diagnosed, as many as 75 percent of women with chlamydia infections are asymptomatic and therefore may go undiagnosed and untreated. Untreated, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women, which can cause short or long term damage, such as fever, vaginal discharge, chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, or infertility.
Genital Herpes: An estimated 45 million people in the United States are infected with genital herpes. Rates of herpes infection are on the rise with approximately 1 million new cases each year. Women are more susceptible to the herpes virus; currently one out of every four age 12 and older nationwide is infected. A majority of people with the virus are unaware that they are infected, increasing the likelihood of transmitting the infection to their partners. Although anti-viral drugs are available to manage genital herpes, no cure exists. Herpes increases a person’s susceptibility to HIV and causes HIV-infected individuals to be more infectious.
Gonorrhea: Although reported rates are the lowest since reporting began in the 1970's, gonorrhea, a bacterial infection, is the second most common disease that is required to be reported. There are an estimated 718,000 new cases of gonorrhea per year. Adolescent women (ages 15 to 19) currently have the highest rates of infection. Like chlamydia, untreated gonorrheal infections are a major cause of PID as well as ectopic pregnancy and infertility. While gonorrhea is curable with antibiotics, a growing number of strains are now resistant to penicillin and other drugs used in treatment. The vast majority of infections, however, are treatable.
Human papillomavirus (HPV): Of more than 100 strains, more than 30 different types of HPV are sexually transmitted. Certain “high risk” strains of HPV have been linked to cervical cancer; however, many common strains of HPV, including genital warts, are considered "low-risk." Most of the "low risk" infections resolve themselves on their own without any treatment. There are 6.2 million new cases of HPV diagnosed in the U.S. each year. HPV is so common that more than 50% of sexually active men and women will acquire HPV at some point in their lives; more than 80% of sexually active women will have had HPV by age 50. Regular screenings for changes in the cervix (pap smears) are the best known ways to prevent possible complications from HPV infection.
Syphilis: Syphilis, a bacterial STI, affects approximately 32,000 people each year in the United States. Young African American women are disproportionately affected by this infection. Like many other STIs, syphilis infection facilitates HIV transmission. The infection is treatable with antibiotics, but may have serious health consequences such as weight loss, rash, and permanent damage to internal organs if left untreated. Pregnant women with syphilis may have a high rate of stillbirths, depending on how long she has been infected.
Trichomoniasis: Trichomoniasis, a parasitic infection, is the most common curable STI in young sexually active women in the United States. There are approximately 7.4 million new cases each year. Treatment is inexpensive and effective; however, many infected persons, especially men, experience no symptoms. Trichomoniasis can lead to increased susceptibility to HIV infection.
Bacterial Vaginosis: Bacterial Vaginosis (BV) is the name of a condition in women where the normal balance of bacteria in the vagina is disrupted and replaced by an overgrowth of certain bacteria. The cause of BV is not fully understood, but sexual activity may put women at an increased risk. In most cases, BV causes no complications. However, BV increases a woman’s susceptibility to HIV and other STIs including chlamydia and gonorrhea.
HIV/AIDS: HIV is a viral infection that weakens the immune system, leaving the body susceptible to other infections and diseases. HIV infection leads to the disease AIDS. Women represent one out of every three new HIV infections in the U.S. every year; African American women and Latinas account for nearly 80% of AIDS cases among women in the United States. While there is no cure for HIV/AIDS, improvements in drug therapies have increased life expectancies for HIV positive men and women who have access to these technologies.