Clouded by misconceptions and stigma, the most common medical conditions can appear life-altering.
“We had a patient with a very common viral condition, a little genital wart, which is a [Human papillomavirus infection] effect,” Dr. Hector Chapa, clinical assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, said.
Condylomas — genital warts — may be unsightly and undesirable, Chapa said, but they’re not life-threatening and are relatively easy to treat. They are manageable symptoms resulting from one of the milder sexually transmitted infections, or STIs.
“I told her this [infection] was not going to influence her health or ability to have children. ‘Monitor it and you’re going to be fine — it is one of the most common conditions out there.’”
Yet, breaking down into tears, the patient took the news as if she had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, Chapa said.
“It’s heartbreaking. I’m not minimizing the condition; this is a real health issue,” Chapa said. “But there was this stigma over something that should be like, ‘Oh, thank goodness, doctor.’”
In the past year, A&M’s Student Health Services, or SHS, said it identified positive cases of HIV in persons who had no idea they contracted it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported annual cases of STIs reached an all-time high for the sixth-consecutive year in 2019, according to an April 2021 press release. The most commonly reported were chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, which doctors once believed was close to being eliminated from the United States.
Health experts and advocates at A&M want students to normalize communicating their sexual concerns and needs to professionals, regardless of background. Whether they are coming from a family who didn’t talk about sex or was openly sex-positive, health problems don’t discriminate, Chapa said.
“It’s very disturbing, as a physician, that we still have things that historically have never gone away,” Chapa said. “The only way you can tackle a problem is you’ve got to talk about it.”
Stigmas around STIs are one of the predominant issues among college-aged individuals, yet most are preventable, public health junior Nimisha Srikanth, who is a member of the student organization Feminists for Reproductive Equity & Education, or FREE, said in an email to The Battalion.
“There is a huge stigma that if you get an STI, you’re diseased or you’re dirty, etc.,” Srikanth said in the email. “However, some STIs are pretty common, and they’re easily treatable if caught early.”
Getting tested often is not just good advice, but the current guideline for public health, SHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tiffany Skaggs said. STIs often appear asymptomatically, yet can still be spread and cause long-term damage.
“Current guidelines [recommend] preventative health exams for asymptomatic, low-risk people every one to three years,” Skaggs said. “However, if you have risk factors that increase the risk, such as more than one sexual partner, previous history of a sexually transmitted infection [or] condomless sex, then frequent testing is recommended. For people who have multiple partners, especially men who have sex with men, we actually recommend testing every three months.”
More routine screenings than STI tests are just as important for male and female patients alike, Skaggs said. SHS at the A.P. Beutel Health Center provides wellness exams, pregnancy tests, birth control counseling and prescriptions, pap smears, Hepatitis C testing, cancer screenings and much more. In the era of vaccination debates, the HPV vaccine — also known as Gardasil — is one of the most critical preventative measures available, Skaggs said.
“Gardasil is a two- or a three-shot series, and it basically decreases the risk for cervical cancer to almost none,” Skaggs said. “It also decreases the risk for head and neck cancers, as well as penile cancers and anal cancers. If we can decrease the risk of cancer in the future, why not?”
When Gardasil was first FDA-approved in 2014, it was marketed in a limited capacity toward only women preventing cervical cancer, Chapa said, and parents were concerned that protecting their kids against STIs would open the door for their child to have sex. This usage was simply short-sighted, Chapa said.
SHS staff try to regularly initiate conversations with students and provide educational materials, but the most valuable event has been the once-monthly free STI testing, Jo Ann Culpepper, assistant director of medical laboratory operations and outreach, said. The first testing day in months was held Nov. 3 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., but funding for future events is uncertain unless SHS can obtain a grant.
“It was 2018 where we really started to offer the free testing, that’s when it really kicked in and got popular,” Culpepper said. “And then we kind of geared it toward the type of testing that the students really require, mainly the chlamydia [and] gonorrhea. But in June, the state [government] let us know that they can no longer fund the event. And that’s the reason we haven’t done it in several months.”
Unfortunately, many students over the years would not have gotten tested if not for the free event, Culpepper said.
SHS doesn’t provide the only affordable or free services in the community, however, thanks to telemedicine and other state-funded programs, Chapa said.
“Some clinics have sliding scales or [perform tests] pro bono. And although you have to wait, every major county in the country has free testing,” Chapa said. “That’s at your county health department. So ours is up on Texas [Avenue]. You can go to the Valley Health Department and you can get tested for anything. In today’s culture where, ‘I want to go in and get it done now,’ well, you probably have to pay for that. You just got to wait.”
A&M’s office of Health Promotion and the organization FREE both offer sexual health resource services on their websites, where individuals can request a variety of supplies for sexual wellness at no charge.