Experts urge students to be proactive about sexual health, get tested
Editor’s Note: The possible health consequences of having a sexually transmitted infection inadvertently was attributed to Erica Phillipich, a health educator for the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at MSU.
The only way a sexually active person can be absolutely sure he or she is not infected with an STI is to get tested — a lesson many health officials try to drill into the minds of high school and college students.
But the process is not that simple. Knowing the ins and outs of sexual diseases and the way doctors test for them is essential to getting proper treatment.
Where to go, who to see, what test to ask for and at what cost are all questions studio art and media and information senior Mary Cox has yet to have answered when it comes to her personal mission to get tested for STIs.
Cox is one of many MSU students who is sexually active but has not yet been tested for STIs. And although she would like to take the tests, she is unsure about how to face this type of “awkward” situation.
Samples being tested for chlamydia are heated up on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 in the Olin Health Center Laboratory. Julia Nagy/The State News
Med tech Nancy Nagele scans the barcode on samples for chlamydia on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012 in the Olin Health Center Laboratory. Nagele was repeating a run to ensure the sample was actually positive for chlamydia. Julia Nagy/The State News
“I wouldn’t know exactly where to go, and it’s kind of awkward (saying), ‘Well, you know, I might have some type of STI’ — to be that person,” Cox said. “But it’s common, and a lot of people do it.“
According to Dr. Edward Rosick, a physician and the chairperson of MSU’s Family Medicine Department in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, these are all good questions to ask.
“It’s not an uncommon thing for people to come in and say, ‘You know, I’m starting a new relationship, and so I want to get tested for STIs.’ And then I say, ‘Well, what do you want to get tested for?’ And they say, ‘Everything.’” Rosick said, adding specific testing depends on an individual’s sexual history and risk factors.
Rosick said when it comes to students and their safe sexual habits, most students know they should get tested, but they don’t know how — something campus health officials are working to improve.
Where and at what cost?
As the costs of tests for multiple STIs can be hundreds of dollars, when a student is standing before an embarrassing infection — and going home to mom and dad is not an option — facilities on campus can become a saving grace.
Area health centers, including Olin Health Center, Clinical Center and the Ingham County Health Department, all offer tests. But rates vary for each person, depending on insurance coverage and how much the tests cost in the first place.
Kathi Braunlich, a marketing and communication manager for Student Health Services at Olin, said many testing centers, including Olin, accept insurance policies that cover STI testing.
Aetna, the company that provides optional coverage for students, covers these costs.
Braunlich said if a student does not have insurance or has poor coverage, costs can be out of reach, as some cost more than $100.
However, Olin offers “prompt payment discounts,” which lessen costs for students who pay up front.
The costs of each test vary at Olin. The clinic offers testing for herpes, HPV, gonorrhea and chlamydia — all are more than $100 unless paid at the time of service.
HIV tests are free and anonymous at Olin — the only test where students do not have to give their name.
Comparably, the Ingham County Health Department offers gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and HIV testing at little to no charge and accepts insurance.
“The vast majority of students do have insurance, so for a lot of people, it’s not a huge burden,” Braunlich said. “There are a lot of people who don’t have insurance or (have) really poor coverage, (and) if they don’t, then this could be a challenge.”
Blair Carter, a zoology and media arts and technology senior, said he is sexually active and has been tested for STIs more than once since his sophomore year of college.
Carter said he pays out of pocket for the tests, as the up-front discount actually makes it cheaper than his after-insurance bill.
Still, he has felt the stigma of getting tested firsthand. After his first test, his mother received the bill in the mail.
“She tossed me the bill, and it clearly said what it was,” Carter said. “But she didn’t say anything, and I was like, ‘OK we’re just (going to) act like that never happened.’”
There is a varying window of time, based on case, during which an STI can be detected.
It usually takes from 10 days to two weeks for a test to be accurate, and if a person fails to catch wind of his or her infection soon enough, the consequences can be severe, Erica Phillipich, a health educator for the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at MSU, said in an email.
It only begins to get more serious when a person waits a large amount of time — say, a few months — which gives an individual more time to have sex with others and spread the STI. It also allows the infection more time to manifest, Rosick said.
Rosick said if not caught in the right amount of time, an infection such as gonorrhoea can cause sterility in a man or woman, and HPV can lead to cervical cancer in women.
He said viral infections such as herpes, HIV and HPV can be treated but not cured — unlike bacterial infections, such as syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Peace of mind
Younger people are more likely to contract an STI simply because many are not involved in monogamous relationships and can have more than one sexual partner in a short period of time, Rosick said.
Although Cox said she is not in a monogamous relationship right now, to keep herself and future partners safe, she is planning to get tested very soon.
“(I assume) it’s kind of like every doctor’s appointment — you always dread it, and you always think it’s going to be terrible and people will find out, and it’s never that way,” Cox said.
“It’s just a protective service you should do for yourself and for others.”
Carter, who also has had multiple sexual partners, said he has had a conversation with a girl he was seeing before they decided to stop having protected sex — a situation he describes not as uncomfortable, but as one that needed to happen in order to give him peace of mind.
“I feel like everybody should be open to being tested because that is the way we actually stop the progression of different diseases,” Carter said.
Editor’s note: This is the second part in a three-part series of examining sexual health at MSU.