Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) do not discriminate. They can affect anyone regardless of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation and economic status.
South Africa commemorates STI/Condom Week annually between 10 and 16 February. This is to raise public awareness around the importance of using a condom to prevent STIs and unplanned pregnancies, curb the spread of HIV and AIDS and root out STI stigma and discrimination.
According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), STIs are caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites and are spread mainly through unprotected (not wearing a condom) vaginal, anal and oral sex with an infected person. Some STIs can be spread by non-sexual means – for example, from mother to child during pregnancy or childbirth.
Two STIs, syphilis and genital herpes, can also be spread during touching or kissing if a person has sores on their genitals or mouth. Syphilis is a bacterial infection that starts as a painless sore; while genital herpes is a viral infection causing small, painful blisters that turn into ulcers.
“Getting treatment for genital herpes is very important as it reduces the risk of HIV infection,” says Dr Thato Chidarikire, the Director of the HIV Prevention Programme at the National Department of Health.
“Untreated STIs result in long-term complications, such as ongoing lower abdominal pain, infertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes like stillbirths and preterm delivery,” adds Dr Chidarikire.
Signs, symptoms and treatment
While many people with STIs may not have any signs or symptoms, there are some signs one can look out for says Dr Chidarikire.
“These include a discoloured vaginal discharge (yellow or green) or white (if it’s penile or anal); a foul smell; burning urination (although not all cases of burning urine is a sign of an STI) and pain in the lower abdomen,” she adds.
Because STIs are related to sexual transmission people feel uncomfortable talking about them says Dr Chidarikire.
“We encourage open communication between partners so that they can negotiate the issues of safe sex and condom use to reduce transmission, and discuss treatment if they become infected. If both partners don’t get treatment, they will reinfect each other,” she adds.
If you think you have an STI, go to your closest primary healthcare facility for free treatment and notify your current or recent sexual partners.