Untreated, recurrent STIs increase risk of HIV infection – Experts

Picture of the environment at the National Hospital
Picture of the environment at the National Hospital

Having frequent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and not adequately treating them increases one’s chances of contracting HIV infection, health experts have warned.

Sexually active humans are prone to STIs through unprotected sexual activities.

While some people may be aware of their infection status but choose to keep it away from their partners, others may not be aware because not all come with symptoms. This leads to such infections being left totally unattended to by people who feel no need to seek medical attention.

In other cases, some STIs never leave the system of the carrier completely. It leaves open sores behind after several treatments, thereby increasing the risk of HIV transmission.

“STIs increases the risk of HIV infection because they cause ulcerations to abridge the skin of penis and cervix in a woman.

“When this happens, and the woman has sex with an HIV positive man or the other way round, It becomes easy for the virus to transmit into the body system” Chris Aimakhu, a consultant gynaecologist said.

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

STIs are serious public health issues that can have devastating effects on sexual, reproductive and general health.

STIs are spread predominantly by sexual contact, including vaginal, anal and oral sex. However, STIs can also be spread through non-sexual means such as via blood or blood products, transmission from mother to child during pregnancy and childbirth.

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These infections include but are not limited to chlamydia, gonorrhoea, hepatitis B, HIV, syphilis, Herpes.

Infections like chlamydia and gonorrhoea if left untreated can cause damage to the reproductive organs and result in long term complications, such as infertility.

STIs like herpes and syphilis are said to increase the risk of HIV acquisition three-fold or more than others.

Global STIs Prevalence

The World Health Organisation (WHO estimates that globally, more than a million people acquire STI every day.

It also noted that each year, there are an estimated 357 million new infection cases with 1 of 4 STIs: chlamydia (131 million), gonorrhoea (78 million), syphilis (5.6 million) and trichomoniasis (143 million).

Unfortunately, Chlamydia remains the most commonly diagnosed bacterial STI in high-income countries despite widespread testing recommendations, sensitive and specific non-invasive testing techniques, and cheap effective therapy.

In 2016, about 988,000 pregnant women across the world were infected with syphilis, resulting in over 200,000 stillbirths and newborn deaths.

Also, more than 500 million people are estimated to have genital infection with herpes simplex virus (HSV).

Why STIs Increase risk of HIV – Experts

A specialist gynaecologist, Wale Akinboboye, said STIs increase the risk of HIV infections due to some mechanisms which include breach in the skin.

He said: “Some STIs cause ulcers on the female genitals or male penis that are like breaks in the skin.

“For HIV infection to be acquired, there has to be a break. So when such people come in contact with an infected partner, the chances of getting infected becomes high,” he said.

He said the breach in the skin helps the HIV virus to easily penetrate into the body.

Mr Akinboboye advised people to practice safe sex to avoid getting down with STIs.

“Practising safe sex is the basic ABC. An individual who is yet to practice sex should abstain but those already sexually active should stay with one partner and make sure the other partner is also committed,” he said

Mr Aimakhu, the consultant gynaecologist, said when someone has infections left untreated, they are susceptible to other diseases.

He advised women with recurrent STIs to get treatment for themselves and their partners. Mr Aimakhu also advised against self-medication in treating infections.

“People with STIs should visit the hospitals for laboratory swaps and urine analysis to determine if it is a viral infection or bacterial before going ahead with medications,” he said.

Stigmatisation

Stigmatisation is one of the major reasons people shy away from visiting the hospital and receiving adequate treatment for STIs.

A lady in her mid-thirties who identified herself simply as Joan said she prefers over the counter treatment for infections due to stigmatisation in hospitals.

“I have visited the hospital once to complain about a stomach pain I had. I was asked to run a urine test and the result was positive that I had infections. The nurse started asking me questions like how many people did I have sex with, do I use condoms? and so on in a very unfriendly manner.

“So after then, I use google to search for symptoms and know the drugs to buy to treat myself,” she said.

Hadiza, a mother of two, also said nurses in private and public hospitals make her feel she was doing something wrong whenever she complained of an infection.

“One asked me a question like ‘am I cheating or is my husband seeing someone else?’

“I felt bad and I started thinking my husband was cheating on me because I wasn’t cheating. After then, I just decided to stop going to the hospital to complain of infections. I visit a pharmacy close to my house and ask for one antibiotic I had used before,” she said.

“A nurse rudely told me my discharge smelt really bad. I remember crying all night when I got home because I felt bad about it.

“I am a lady so sometimes I feel these infections are inevitable. No matter how long I treat it, I still feel somehow,” a woman, Aisha, said.

She said she goes to a private laboratory for any test instead of visiting the hospital.

Symptoms of STIs

A person can have an STI without having obvious symptoms of the infection. However, common symptoms of STIs include vaginal discharge, itching, urethral discharge or burning sensation in men, genital ulcers, and abdominal pain.

There are other serious symptoms depending on the infections and how long It has been in the body system.

How to prevent STIs

The best way to prevent STIs is to abstain from any form of sexual activities. Other ways are the use of condoms during sexual intercourse, having just one sexual partner avoiding risky sex activities.

For infections like hepatitis, there are vaccines available and given within a period of months.

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