How well do you know your body?
And, by body we mean your sexual health. Often, as young women in Sri Lanka we aren’t as privy to information relating to our reproductive organs, and as a result, topics like Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) and how you can get them slip through the cracks. But, this does not mean you can’t start the process of fine-tuning your knowledge on the subject. So, how do you go about understanding it all? Dr. Romanie Fernando, a Consultant Obstetrician & Gynaecologist at Asiri Central Hospital, gives you the lowdown. Getting hitched and having babies are almost rites of passage for young women in Sri Lanka. But, in order to lead a wholesome life, proper sexual health is vital to keep you happy and functioning without incident.
So, what does this all mean?
Understanding that your physical, mental and social well-being play an important role in your sexuality is the first step to identifying with your body. Know that you’re a strong, independent woman who should have a positive and pleasurable two-way connection in your sexual relationships, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.
Culturally, we’ve placed a social stigma around everything associated with the word ‘sex’, and this begins in school. “In most local schools, the Ordinary Level biology lesson on the human reproductive system is either completely skipped or an extremely vague explanation is given on how babies are conceived when a sperm fertilizes an egg,” explains Dr. Romaine. “But the process of how the sperm gets to the egg isn’t taught!” This lack of knowledge is what then goes on to play a bigger, more detrimental role in not just your own sexual health, but also of those around you.
Conversations around the subject of sexual health are often swept under the rug and rarely take place. In most people’s minds, the worst that can happen is an a pregnancy happening out of wedlock. What we fail to realize is that there is far worse that can happen. STIs are very prevalent on this paradise isle, and now, more than ever, knowledge on the matter is vital. Young girls should be educated from a young age, as they hit puberty much earlier than boys.
What really is a STI?
For those not in the know, a STI may be transmitted from person to person through sexual contact (including anal, vaginal or oral sex). STIs can be caused by bacteria, parasites and viruses. “Any type of sexual contact will lead to the other person contracting STIs,” explains Dr. Romaine. “The danger lies in that certain STIs don’t portray symptoms, but despite the lack of symptoms your health will still be affected.” Some STIs can be cured through appropriate antimicrobial treatments, but others may not present indicators to treat it in the first place.
What’s more, very few women with symptoms present will even seek medical care. Being that young girls are taught to fear the consequences of premarital sexual relations from a very young age, most sufferers will either never seek medical help or resort to alternative, non-effective methods of care.
A STI can lead to a variety of issues. Think acute illness, infertility, long-term disability and death that can also result in severe medical and psychological consequences for young women, men and even infants. STIs aren’t just a concern due to the discomfort and pain caused by these infections. Untreated, serious complications can arise in both women and new-born babies.
Apart from being serious diseases on their own, STIs also enhance the sexual transmission of the HIV infection. What many women don’t know is that the presence of an untreated STI can increase the risk of both acquisition as well as transmission of HIV. Interestingly enough, dealing with a STI immediately, can actually reduce the occurrence of the HIV infection. “Prevention and treatment of STIs play a very big role in the HIV prevention strategy,” confirmed Dr. Romaine.
Another STI is Human Papillomavirus (HPV). It is a virus that when infected with at adolescence, causes cancerous changes in the cervical epithelium (neck of the womb). HPV is prevalent in young women and men with multiple partners. So, it is important you remember that with multiple partners come the risk factors for getting cervical cancer. HPV can also cause throat, anal and skin cancer. But, there is hope! A vaccine, for both girls and boys, is now available for the prevention of HPV-related cancers. The catch is that it should be taken during adolescence (between 12 and 18 years of age), before becoming sexually active.
The most common sexually transmitted infections
- Genital herpes
- Human papillomavirus infection
- Hepatitis B
Complications of STIs in adults
- Pelvic inflammatory disease
- Chronic pelvic pain
- AIDS (HIV)
- Liver failure (Hep B)
- Recurrent painful ulcers around the vagina (Genital Herpes)
- Recurrent urinary tract infections
Complications during pregnancy
- Disease transmission to the baby
- Congenital syphilis
- Congenital herpes (If the mother has an active outbreak of genital herpes at the time of delivery, the baby is more likely to become infected during birth)
- Congenital HIV or childhood AIDS
- Low birth weight
- Pre-term labour
- Still births
- Congenital eye infections
How do you treat a STI?
Treatment of STIs vary with the different types of infections present. STIs caused by bacteria can be treated with a course of antibiotics. However, those caused by viruses cannot be cured. The symptoms can be treated to provide comfort and reduce pain in genital herpes. It is extremely vital that you know your partner’s sexual history and the use of protection. “Oral contraceptives may reduce the risk of pregnancy, but it won’t protect you from diseases and infections,” says Dr. Romanie. If you are sexually active, condoms are your best bet to prevent a STI. If your partner refuses to wear one, don’t go through with it.
It is also advisable to visit your doctor to get tested for STIs twice a year to ensure you have nothing to be alarmed about.
Knowledge is power
Young women (and men) between the ages of 15 and 35 who are sexually active are among the most likely to contract a STI. Having said that, women are more likely to catch an infection a lot sooner than men, solidifying the fact that sex education must take place as soon as a young girl hits adolescence. Having the right information at this point will help guide children away from possible sexual abuse and assault. “Most children don’t realize the underlying sexual nature of certain kinds of abuse,” shares Dr. Romanie. “This is why it’s important to teach children what would amount to inappropriate physical contact and why they must immediately tell a parent, older sibling or a teacher if they are subjected to such harm.”
Navigating a subject that is so off-limits in a conservative community is hard. Women don’t really have a thorough understanding of sex and STIs, but with the various options and resources available, it is important to get this dialogue going. So swallow your fear and ask the hard questions. Always speak to your doctor when in doubt and heed her (or his) advice. The rest will fall into place.
For further information contact the Asiri Well Woman’s Clinic on 0763 90 90 99