17 October 2018

Don't be shy about STIs

| Emma Davidson
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Condom in a shirt pocket

Condoms are available free from AIDS Action Council and Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT.

We all know that we should get regular health check-ups, particularly if we have risk factors that increase the chances of something going wrong. But do you know what sexually transmitted infections (STIs) you should be getting tested for, and how often?

New research by the Women’s Centre for Health Matters (WCHM) found that there are many women in the ACT who are sexually active, but never have STI checks.

The survey of more than 510 women aged 15 or older in the ACT found that 23 per cent of women in the ACT who had sex in the past 12 months had never been tested for STIs.

While the largest proportion of women who have had sex in the ACT in the past 12 months are aged 19 to 29 years (94 per cent in that age group compared to 86 per cent of all women who responded to the survey), all women need to know what STI tests to have done, and how often.

A national survey by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society in 2013 found that 34 per cent of Australian students in Years 10 to 12 have had sex. The Centre also surveyed Australians over 60 years old in 2015, and found that 72 per cent had sex in the past year.

Part of the difficulty is that 24 per cent of women in the WCHM survey said they were either somewhat or very uncomfortable talking to their healthcare provider about STIs. If you can’t talk about a problem, it’s very hard to talk about how to fix it.

This means that myths such as “but we’ve never had penetrative sex, so I don’t have to worry about STIs” or “but I’ve only ever had one partner” persist in the community. These were responses given by some women in the WCHM research to explain why they’ve never had STI screening.

One woman in her forties told WCHM that she recommends Canberra Sexual Health Centre to her friends.

“It’s an easy service to access if you know it’s there, because you just rock up. I’ve got friends who have been married for 25 years and now they’re looking at starting new relationships or wanting to check things out, so I just tell everyone about it. Because it’s a bit of a secret.”

Another woman aged over 60 years told WCHM that she has STI testing because her “partner occasionally strays”.

You should talk to your healthcare provider, or ask Canberra Sexual Health Centre or Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT (SHFPACT), about STI screening, if any of these things have happened:

  • You have recently started or ended a relationship;
  • You have had unsafe sex or believe there was some risk to your health during a sexual encounter;
  • You have had genital symptoms such as pain, discharge, or itching;
  • You think you might have an STI;
  • Your partner has recently had an STI; or
  • You are concerned about some aspect of your sexual health.

If any of these things are relevant to you, you should have STI screening regularly:

  • You get paid for sex work;
  • You have frequent changes in sexual partners;
  • You have sex with people outside your relationship; or
  • You are sexually active and part of a population group in which there is a higher risk of STIs.

Many participants, particularly younger women, said that they bypassed the GP and sought specialist care from the Canberra Sexual Health Centre, Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT, Women’s Health Service, or women’s health specialists.

Concerns about GPs judging them was one of the reasons women said they didn’t want to see a GP for STI testing. Sexual health professionals also stressed the need to reduce stigma for women in requesting STI testing, and for GPs to be comfortable raising the topic of STI testing in consultations with women.

Women’s Centre for Health Matters recently presented awards for excellence in delivering women-centred health services in the ACT to SHFPACT and the Women’s Health Service. Both services have consistently received positive feedback from women who participate in research at the Women’s Centre for Health Matters.

The report by Women’s Centre for Health Matters, Improving choices and options – the views of ACT women about their sexual and reproductive health needs, is available online.

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