The National Coalition for Sexual Health (NCSH), a coalition of nearly 40 leading health and medical organizations, issued a call-to-action to increase the low uptake of preventive sexual health care services. More than half of all Americans are not getting these recommended services, including HPV vaccination, chlamydia screening, and HIV testing, even though they are potentially life-saving and are now available at no cost through the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
For example, in 2012, only 34% of adolescent girls and 7% of adolescent boys received all three doses of the HPV vaccine. Yet, HPV is the most common STI, with an estimated 14 million new cases every year and 79 million people currently infected with the virus. Annually, HPV is linked to 360,000 cases of genital warts and 26,200 cases of cancer. However, many people are unaware that a vaccine is available, which is recommended for both males and females.
Personally, I have four nieces and nephews ages 11-12 and not one of them has been vaccinated. Their mothers didn’t even know what HPV was and had never been told there was a vaccine to prevent it. Even when parents are aware of the benefits of the HPV vaccine, many are still reluctant to have their children vaccinated. Recent studies reveal that at least 25% don’t intend to get their children vaccinated for HPV at the recommended ages of 11-12.
Meanwhile, as of 2007, Australia began offering free HPV vaccination in schools to girls who are 12 and 13 years old, as well as catch-up programs for girl and women under age 26. And it is working. In just four years, the rate of genital warts cases among girls younger than 21 declined nearly 93%, from 11.5% in 2007 to less than 1% in 2011.
We, as a society, need to do a better job of educating Americans about sexual health and the services that are available to help prevent illnesses and to detect them early, so that they can be effectively treated and managed. And it’s not just HPV. Screening rates are subpar for many sexually transmitted infections (STIs). While HIV testing is recommended for all sexually active men and women, 55% of Americans have never been tested. Chlamydia is one of the leading causes of infertility, but less than half of sexually active young women ages 16-24 were screened for chlamydia in 2012. And, only 20% of young women were tested for both HIV and STIs in the past year.
There are more cases of STIs than diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, and asthma combined. Yet, we do not take our sexual health as seriously as other health conditions. And this doesn’t just apply to young women or teenagers, but to everyone, male or female, across the lifespan. We need to make sexual health part of our health care routine and recognize that good sexual health is essential to our overall health and well-being. Don’t wait for your health care provider to bring it up, or assume you’re automatically getting what you need. Ask him or her about testing and other preventive options. As cheesy as it sounds, knowledge is power. Having medically accurate information is the best way for people to take charge of their own sexual health.
The NCSH believes that the benefits of good sexual health go well beyond disease prevention. Being sexually healthy means being able to enjoy a healthier body, a satisfying sexual life, positive relationships, and peace of mind. There are other key steps you can take to protect and improve your sexual health, including value who are you and decide what’s right for you; get smart about your body and protect it; treat your partners well and expect them to treat you well; and build positive relationships.
The NCSH recently released a new, easy-to-use guide and website, Take Charge of Your Sexual Health: What you need to know about preventive services. This guide informs men and women of all ages about recommended preventive services, such as screenings, vaccines, and counseling, to help protect and improve sexual health, as well as provides tips on how to find and talk with a health care provider and a list of additional sexual health resources. Check it out and take charge of your sexual health starting now!
Jaclyn Fontanella, MPH, is a program manager at Partnership for Prevention where she works on projects dedicated to improving sexual health in America, including the National Coalition for Sexual Health and the National Chlamydia Coalition. She received her master of public health from the School of Public Health and Health Services at George Washington University.