April is STD Awareness Month, which provides an opportunity to raise awareness about the impact of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has provided a separate but related theme for each week in April. The theme for this week is “Providing the best medical care possible means talking to your patients about their sexual health.”
This theme brings to mind the important role that Disease Intervention Specialists (DIS) play in facilitating these conversations, and the impact these discussions have on the sexual health of the community as a whole. DIS are an integral component in the prevention and control of HIV and STDs and are public health professionals with specialized skills and training. They have many roles throughout the health department, but one of the most critical roles is conducting voluntary interviews with clients regarding their sexual health and sexual partners.
Medical providers should include discussions about an individual’s sexual practices in order to provide the best treatment for their clients; however, DIS are tasked with taking that conversation to the next level. These conversations are often difficult and emotional for clients. DIS provide a safe space for clients to talk openly about their sexual health with their partners and health care providers. At Richmond City Health District (RCHD) in Richmond, VA, DIS work to ensure that all questions are answered and all myths are dispelled. DIS then work with the patient to determine the best way to ensure that all partners who are at risk of infection receive testing and treatment. Another crucial aspect of this conversation is the in-depth discussion about risk reduction and the important role it plays in the prevention of STDs. This discussion needs to extend beyond the simple message of “use condoms every time.” DIS work with the client to determine their specific risk factors and then help the client identify tools they are willing and able to use to reduce their risk of acquiring STDs or HIV. An important component of this discussion is identifying barriers to the use of available risk reduction tools, for example why a client is not using condoms. Identifying and addressing the barriers may assist the client in developing and adhering to personal strategies to reduce their risks.
In 2016 RCHD will begin offering Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV negative clients. PrEP is a prevention strategy offered to HIV negative individuals at high risk of contracting HIV. The use of PrEP involves taking a daily HIV medication to reduce the risk of acquiring HIV. Studies show that PrEP is highly effective in preventing the acquisition of HIV if taken as prescribed. The DIS at RCHD are excited to add messages about the availability of PrEP when discussing sexual health with clients and their partners throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.
For fact sheets, brochures, and STD testing locations, visit CDC’s STD Awareness Page. To find additional information on PrEP be sure to view NACCHOs PrEP and Local Health Department Educational Series. If you are wondering how other jurisdictions are implementing PrEP programs, the PrEP Story Bank is a great resource for LHDs and their HIV prevention partners. Please contact Gretchen Weiss at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in adding your jurisdiction’s story.
If your health department is planning activities around STD prevention, testing, and treatment in April, NACCHO would like to hear about it. Use the hashtag #STDMonth16 and tweet @NACCHOalerts to get the word out!