SHERIDAN — April is Sexually Transmitted Disease Awareness Month and national, state and local agencies are working with a common goal of encouraging Americans to be informed and get tested.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infections occur in the U.S. each year and of those more than 50 percent of cases occur in people between the ages of 15 and 24.
According to Wendy Wood, Nurse Practitioner at Reproductive Health Care of the Bighorns, that percentage is accurate here in Sheridan County as well.
“A lot of our patients are high school students and statistically 50 percent of all teenagers are sexually active,” she said. “So educating the youth of the risks and factors is important, but the activities we at RHBH are allowed to do to educate them are pretty limited.”
Wood said that once a year a representative will visit Sheridan High School and give a one-hour presentation on STD facts and prevention, noting that the RHBH has not previously been invited to speak at Tongue River High School or Big Horn High School, though they would love to do so in the future.
“Sex education is a controversial topic with a lot of parents so the schools shy away from it,” she added. “Abstinence is the most important thing and only certain way to protect yourself, but if the students choose to make other decisions, we need to educate them on how to do that safely.”
Here in Wyoming the pregnancy rate for ages 18 to 20 is higher than the national average and Wood said this fact and the growing number of adolescents contracting STDs both stem from the same lack of education.
Last November, RHBH hosted a “Condom Rodeo” at Sheridan College with a variety of fun yet educational events for students to learn more about pregnancy and disease prevention, including one event which tested their ability to quickly and correctly apply a condom.
“It was interesting to see how many people didn’t even know how to put on a condom,” she said. “Something so simple that could potentially save their lives or at least save them from infection and they don’t know how to do it.”
Wood noted that in the presentation they are permitted to make at SHS annually, they can discuss condoms but are not allowed to demonstrate how to put one on. The center will visit the college again this month to give more formal presentations to the students.
Courtney Smith, communicable disease surveillance program manager at the Wyoming Department of Health, agrees that condoms are the best way for sexually active people to prevent the contraction and spread of STD’s.
“Some people are not aware of how to correctly use a condom or just choose to not use one,” Smith said, adding that for this reason everyone should be aware of and check themselves for STDs. “The only way to know for sure is to get tested.”
Vouchers are available for free STD testing, paid for by federal funding, and can be used at RHBH as well as many other clinics in the state.
The free test will look for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
Chlamydia is the most common STD in Wyoming with 2,500 new cases reported each year.
About 50 percent of men and 75 percent of women infected with chlamydia don’t show any signs or symptoms but left untreated the disease can lead to further complications up to and including infertility in women, as well as further spread of the disease.
A full list of health care providers who accept the vouchers, as well as the vouchers to download and print, can be seen at Knowwyo.org. The website also offers facts and figures about STD’s as well as links to a variety of resources.
Treatment for most diseases, information on STDs and pregnancy, testing and birth control are among the services available at RHBH for all members of the community, including minors, with complete confidentiality for all. While patients under age 18 do not need parental permission to receiving testing or treatment, the center does encourage all minor patients to be open and honest with their parents.
“We really just want to make people aware of something they usually don’t stop to think about until it’s too late,” Wood said.