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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 2 September, 2014

Column: An itch, a rash, warts – this makes people get an STI test, but often there are no symptoms

Many STIs are symptomless and can be transmitted through oral sex too, writes Tricia Purcell, who says young people need to be better educated about their sexual health.

Tricia Purcell

THESE DAYS SEX education in most schools will cover aspects of contraception, using protection and how to avoid pregnancy.  And that’s if you’re lucky. But realistically, sex ed in Ireland isn’t much more than an advanced ‘birds and the bees’ talk.

I’m 23 and don’t think I ever heard the word condoms mentioned by a teacher in secondary school. SPHE didn’t come into schools until I was in second year so I missed that vital hour a week of knowledge. Most of my sex ed has come from friends and the internet.  I think what happens with a lot of young people, is you pretend you know more than you do until you get the chance to Google it. I know I did.

Lack of education

And while I think people are more aware of STIs in Ireland, they’re still not doing a whole lot about them. This can be for a number of reasons; lack of education in school, in the home and the age-old stigma around talking about getting tested for STIs.

I’ve only recently learned how to spell gonorrhoea and you can be sure the topic has never come up in conversation with my friends, yet there have been over 1100 cases of it in Ireland since January. A lot of young people think that if they’re on the pill or some form of contraception that they’re sorted.

So much of what we hear about sex in school is how to avoid getting pregnant and less around STIs. But, while sexual education in Ireland needs to change so do people’s attitudes.

Protection

A survey published by the HSE last year found that almost a quarter of Irish adults believe women are ‘easy’ if they carry condoms and if this mentality is still so prevalent in Ireland, it’s no wonder so many STIs are on the rise.

For years I was of the impression that I’d know if I had an STI, but so many STIs are symptomless, that you’d never know if you or your partner have an STI unless you have been recently tested. Another issue is that most people are unaware that STIs can be also be transmitted through oral sex.

Most people who do get tested for STIs do so because they have symptoms. An itch, a rash, warts, whatever it may be, but the thing people don’t realise is that the majority of STIs don’t have symptoms for quite some time. STI tests are painless and confidential so there’s no excuse really, especially considering STIs like gonorrhoea, untreated, can have serious and permanent health problems in men and women, such as infertility.

Cost

One reason that puts some people off getting tested is the cost. If you go to your private doctor, it can be anything over €100 depending on what you’re getting tested for. A lot of people don’t realise that it’s free to get tested in a lot of public hospitals and clinics.

And there’s the plain and simple reason also of ignorance being bliss. People don’t want to know so they can avoid having an awkward conversation with your partner or having to get back in contact with that one night stand. It can be embarrassing but there needs to be more openness around having a chat with a partner about getting tested, especially if you do have an STI, because if you don’t tell them, they could end up re-infecting you if they have it too.

Some people may argue that the simple fact we can see what STIs have been reported in the last year show people are getting tested but last year a survey of students in Ireland found that three out of four students have had unprotected sex, while 70 per cent of students surveyed said they had never been tested for sexually transmitted infections.

This needs to change.

This week Dublin Aids Alliance, USI, SpunOut.ie, Crisis Pregnancy Programme and HSE Health Promotion are running a campaign to get gonorrhea trending and raise awareness around getting tested for sexually transmitted infections. But unfortunately it’s not just gonorrhoea; chlamydia, herpes, HIV and syphilis are all on the increase in Ireland. So it’s vital to get tested.

Check out SpunOut.ie/sex to find out where you can get tested for free as well as a list of places where you can get free condoms.

Tricia Purcell is 23 and a graduate of the University of Limerick. She currently works for youth website, SpunOut.ie.

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