Originally published February 17, 2013 in The Commonwealth Times
Assistant News Editor
Three years ago, then-17-year-old Savannah Flores found out she had a sexually transmitted infection. During a week of unbearable pain and a visit to a doctor, the cello performance major found out she had genital herpes as a high school senior. She was uncomfortable and scared. She didn’t know exactly how it happened, but she knew there was nothing she could do.
The herpes simplex virus is an STI that stays with the affected person for his or her entire life. For Flores, it has led to embarrassing situations, expensive protection and a lot of searching for a partner who could accept her with her disease.
Flores is one of many VCU students who have tested positive for the herpes. VCU ranks higher than most colleges for its rates of students who test positive STIs, according to a study conducted by the American College Health Association. In the last published survey from ACHA in 2010, VCU ranked above average for herpes and other STIs.
Cases of chlamydia at VCU are in the double digits, higher than the ACHA average. In 2010, out of students tested for STIs, 16 percent tested positive for chlamydia. Even though 2011 saw lower rates of 13.8 percent, Nancy Harris, a nurse practitioner for VCU’s health services said, “We may be running a trend where we see an increase in chlamydia.”
The 2010 survey, which takes two years to complete, compared 174 colleges and universities on the sexual health of their students.
Although the data has not yet been completed for 2012, Harris said that VCU’s rates are usually higher than the average rating found by the ACHA study, and predicts chlamydia rates to remain in the double digits and to continue to increase in future years.
Gonorrhea is another STI that remains high at VCU, with rates of 0.6 percent compared to the average of 0.3 percent as of 2010.
Harris predicts VCU will remain higher than average in ACHA’s survey because “we typically always run higher STIs and abnormal pap-smears than what ACHA surveys,” she said.
HIV and syphilis are the only STIs that are not above average at VCU. The university’s climbing STI rates show that more students are and will be in the same situation as Flores.
To Flores, having a lifelong STI is the same as having any other medical condition: it requires attention and diligence.
“There’s nothing wrong with having an STI,” she said. “It’s just a disease.”
After breaking up with the person who she believes gave her herpes, Flores dated around but being sexual was a challenge. “It’s hard to know when to tell someone,” Flores said. “You just feel that that person might not understand.”
Flores said she would distance herself from her partner during sex to avoid passing on the infection. “I just wouldn’t let the other person touch me because I didn’t want them to get it. I always err on the side of over-caution because I don’t want anyone else to get it,” she said.
As a lesbian, Flores has to use special latex gloves and dental dams, a thin span of rubber that covers the vagina during sex, which are expensive and can only be bought at specialty stores to protect her partner.
Although Flores is used to dealing with her infection, she believes a lack of awareness and lingering stigmas is what leads to the an increase in STIs.
“People think it has something to do with the amount of people you have sex with, and it’s not,” she said. “It’s messed up.”
Pamela Price, disease intervention specialist of the Richmond City Health District, agrees that awareness is a key reason that STIs are rising around Richmond.
“(We) just want to make sure that if they are sexually active that they are doing it in a safe and responsible way and that they are understanding the importance of routine screenings.”
But because of the nature of the disease, not enough people are open to talk about them and prepare themselves, which is one reason Flores said she believes stigmas arise. “There’s a mindset that it’s discounting or that you’re a slut for having it,” she said.
To try to combat STI rates, VCU has instituted prevention and awareness campaigns like the Wellness Resource Center’s Stall Seat Journal in bathrooms, groups that occasionally set up in dorms to talk to students about protection and safety and resident assistants who host peer education groups. There are also other resources in the Richmond community available to students that try to alert, prevent and treat STIs such as the Richmond City Health District, which provides a free STI testing and treatment clinic multiple days during the week.
Flores advises those who have just found out they have an STI to understand that life is the same, just with more precautions.
“I’ve had it for three years now and I’ve been with multiple people,” she said. “You just have to be more careful. You should be careful … And also tell your partner. Some people are so nervous about how they will react that they don’t tell them and that’s how it spreads,” she said.
“The biggest thing is there is going to be more communication between you and your partner … And that’s necessary in a relationship anyway,” she said.