October 16, 2003

Trichomoniasis Leads STIs on College Campuses

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When a press release was delivered to The Sun earlier this month stating that trichomoniasis was found to be the leading sexually transmitted infection among U.S. student populations in recent studies, eyebrows raised and nervous glances were exchanged. Is this STI — which almost no one has heard of and no one can pronounce — cause for concern?

The answer, according to the staff at Gannett: Cornell University Health Services, is a resounding yes. If you are sexually active, you should always discuss sexual history with your partner and use protection. According to information from the Kaiser Family Foundation, by the age of 24, one in three sexually active people will have contracted an STI.

However, trichomoniasis (or trich, as it is more commonly known), a bacterial infection characterized by irregular discharge and odor, is not the most common STI out there, at least not on Cornell’s campus.

The studies in question, which were both presented at July’s annual meeting of the International Society for Sexually Transmitted Diseases, announced that trich was found to be far more common in college women and other students than other STIs such as chlamydia or gonorrhea.

One study conducted by researchers from the University of Kentucky and Indiana University examined 145 sexually active college women at a Midwestern university and found that 4.8 percent had trichomoniasis, compared to 2.8 percent with chlamydia and 1.4 percent with gonorrhea.

A second study from Johns Hopkins University found that trich was the leading STI detected in 1,220 students from six high schools.

“I believe they found that incidence in the people they studied, but if they took 145 people on this campus, they would not be getting that number,” said Barbara Jastran, clinical counselor at Gannett, of the first study. “We rarely see it here.”

However, Gannett’s clinicians do see repeated occurrences of other STIs, many of them incurable. Human papilloma virus and herpes are two of the most commonly reported STIs on the Cornell campus as well as nationally.

According to the American Social Health Organization, herpes, a virus characterized by blisters in an infected area, is the most common STI in the United States, with more than 45 million individuals infected. HPV is a close second.

“HPV is much more common [than trich],” said Jennifer Austin, communication specialist at Gannett. “There are over 100 different strains [of HPV] and there aren’t any symptoms for the majority of people with it … a lot of people have it and have no clue. In some ways, it’s like herpes: a lot of people have herpes and don’t know it, which means they can pass it along to someone else without knowing.”

Often, having an incurable infection like HPV is difficult to deal with, Jastran said. “I work with students who are newly diagnosed with STIs. It can be a very emotional time. Trich is curable. Most people don’t lose sleep over it. But if someone gets diagnosed with herpes or HPV, they tend to have a more difficult time accepting it.”

HPV can be detected in pap smears for women. According to Austin, 99 percent of irregular pap smears are caused by HPV or another virus. There is no specific test for men.

The virus is transmitted by skin to skin contact and may be treatable depending on the strain, although none of HPV’s strains are curable.

Gannett also sees cases of treatable infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and the aforementioned trich.

Students can come in for STI screenings, but there is often confusion as to what that entails. Nearly each STI has its own test: some are blood tests, some are urine tests and some are smears. There is no single umbrella STI test and most are not free. An HIV test is free, a combined gonorrhea and chlamydia test runs in the higher 20s and other tests vary according to symptoms.

“Unfortunately, you can’t be tested for everything,” said Austin. “And it can be really hard to hear that information because you want to do what’s right for yourself and your partner. People want to be proactive, but they then find out that doctors can’t test for everything, or their insurance won’t cover it.”

Jastran spoke about how to be proactive about sexual safety. “Before you become sexually active, talk to your partner. The term sexually active has many variations. Before you exchange body fluids in whatever behavior you are engaging in, have a talk with your partner and ask if they have been tested.”

Talking to your partner may be easier said than done, especially considering people change partners frequently in college environments.

“For male to female sex, your best form of protection at that point, if you know you are going to have sex and you don’t want to go into a talk, is using latex protection — if it’s put on before any penis to vagina contact,” advised Jastran.

Condoms may prevent against STIs but they are not 100 percent effective. Nothing, except abstinence, is.

In addition, Austin warns, it’s important to be aware that birth control pills will not protect against anything except pregnancy.

“Some people think, ‘I’m on the pill, so I’m OK.’ That’s a problem,” she said.

If you do have an STI, there is help. Jastran and several other clinical counselors at Gannett counsel students on sexually transmitted infections and help diagnosed students cope with their infections. The focus of the service is on prevention and how to talk to one’s partner. Counseling is available to individuals and to couples at no cost.

Archived article by Stacey Delikat

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