SEATTLE — HIV and AIDs have plagued developing and developed countries for decades; uncurable and often untreatable, these diseases are often viewed as the ultimate in deadly conditions. Despite their severity, it is important that public health initiatives in developing countries also work to eliminate STDs and STIs that are curable and can benefit most from aid. Prevention of sexually transmitted diseases in developing countries is essential to the overall improvement of public health.
The global burden of STIs is attributed to eight major infections including syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and human papillomavirus (HPV) among several others. The danger in these infections lies in their ability to persist without always presenting symptoms as well their high likelihood of transforming into other, more deadly diseases.
According to the World Bank, cervical cancer, caused by HPV, is the largest single cause of years of life lost to cancer and, because it affects women in their most productive years, it has a devastating effect on the well-being of families. Other infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia can cause detriment to fallopian tubes and other reproductive organs and contribute to child mortality rates when left untreated.
Beyond their severity, STIs are among the most common diseases, exceeded only by malaria and diarrheal diseases globally. While most cases of STIs are not fatal, they impact daily activities and quality of life. Women in developing countries suffer miscarriages, painful sexual activity and painful urination as a result of long term untreated infections.
Because most STIs are preventable and curable, the issue is exponentially worse in countries that cannot afford prevention strategies of sexually transmitted diseases and may not have access to effective treatment options. Further, treatment options are usually inexpensive and can have an enormous effect on an individual’s physical health and quality of life.
Recently, sexual education has taken a more comprehensive approach to safe sex advocacy rather than simply promoting delays in initiating intercourse. This method of teaching sexual education encourages individuals to embrace their sexuality meanwhile taking care of their bodies via health precautions like using condoms and regular STD tests.
Not only are comprehensive health programs often the most effective, but they can also be the most cost-effective way to advocate for sexual health. These programs can be easily implemented into school health curricula at a low cost and have shown evidence of paying off financially because of their preventative success.
Aside from health education, condoms remain at the forefront of the fight against less severe STIs. Especially in areas with high concentrations of infection, distribution of condoms reduces STI incidence in sex workers and homosexual men in India, Thailand and South Africa. One crucial component of condom distribution is that the condoms must be quality-assured and distributed at little to no cost in order to make significant improvements in sexual practices.
Several USAID-funded programs are key players in the overall prevention of sexually transmitted diseases in developing countries and condom distribution in developing countries. Programs work not only to increase access to condoms but also to increase demand through sex education and evidence-based behavior change programs.
Their success lies in their close relationships with local governments and NGOs as well as their ability to influence supply chains and large condom manufacturers. USAID has even set up an emergency condom distribution fund to ensure that backup shipments are available when local communities run low on supplies.
While prevention of sexually transmitted diseases in developing countries is a major component of public health initiatives, it is important not to neglect non-fatal STIs in the global battle against HIV and AIDS. Comprehensive health education and prevention programs have shown major success in developing countries as a means of controlling the STI burden. Based on this history of effectiveness and the financial benefit of these programs, NGOs and government programs should see these programs as a necessary move toward improved public health and community wellbeing.
– Sarah Coiro