Sexual Health Awareness Month: How Local Health Departments Fill the Gaps  

9782119 man and woman huggingIn 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) projected that there were 110 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among men and women in the United States, and estimated that 20 million new STIs – including syphilis, gonorrhea, hepatitis B, HIV, and chlamydia – occur every year across the nation. This means that, on average, Americans will acquire approximately 1.7 million STIs during September’s Sexual Health Awareness Month.

While these large numbers capture the impact of these diseases on sexually active individuals across sexual orientation and age groups, certain groups are at greater risk for contracting STIs. For example, young adults (ages 15-24) account for approximately half of chlamydia and gonorrhea infections in the U.S., and men who have sex with men (MSM) are disproportionately affected by syphilis and co-infection with HIV. It’s important to know, however, that the disease burden faced by these and other highly impacted populations, as revealed by these statistics, does not have to remain the reality experienced by these individuals and communities.

Advancing sexual health is as much about prevention as it is about treatment and care, and we can gain much progress through prevention efforts, including education and outreach, at the local community level. Embedded at that community level, LHDs are a trusted and steady provider of information, services, and resources, making them well-positioned to address public health concerns, including STDs, through prevention and treatment activities. Their familiarity with community attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors enables LHDs to connect individuals with the most effective sexual health education. And even when that prevention outreach falls short, LHDs are still there to support communities with sexual health screenings, referrals, and care.

Nevertheless, while LHDs often focus on addressing disease, it’s important to recognize that the landscape of sexual health has shifted to encompass more than that. In the last decade or so, public health professionals have seen the definition of “sexual health” expand beyond just clinical concerns (i.e., disease) to reflect a more holistic, person-centered approach. In 2006, the World Health Organization defined sexual health as

“…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”

This more encompassing definition recognizes the complexity of serving individuals facing sexual health challenges, and is especially useful for LHDs, as community trust is a critical factor in their ability to deliver services to those in need.

To support the advancement of sexual health awareness at the local level, NACCHO’s HIV, STI, and Viral Hepatitis program aims to strengthen the capacity of LHDs to address HIV, STIs, and viral hepatitis by providing technical and capacity building assistance, developing and disseminating tools and resources, and facilitating information exchange, peer engagement, and learning opportunities. Check out this short-list of resources that can help your LHD increase sexual health awareness:

  • Model Practices. View NACCHO’s Model Practice Database and search the ‘Category’ section for “HIV/STI” to find examples of successful efforts by LHDs to promote sexual health.
  • Disease Intervention Specialist (DIS) Program. Learn more about how the CDC Division of STD Prevention, the National Coalition of STD Directors, and the Public Health Accreditation Board are working to develop a national certification program for DIS.
  • PrEP and Local Health Departments Educational Series. Explore three modules which aim to increase awareness and knowledge of the role of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) for HIV prevention and explore potential roles for LHDs in delivering PrEP or supporting PrEP delivery.
  • PrEP Story Bank. Discover, through a compilation of peer-generated case studies, what LHDs are already doing to support PrEP delivery functions.

In addition to NACCHO’s resources, the National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC) created an STD Communications Toolkit to help health departments share STI-related information with both providers and the public. Reviewed by the CDC, the toolkit features print and electronic fact sheets, social media messaging, and links to partner websites offering resources, such as the CDC’s Sexual Health website.

NACCHO encourages LHDs across the nation to use these resources to raise sexual health awareness in communities and get involved in Sexual Health Awareness Month.

About Kim Rodgers

Kim Rodgers serves as a Communications Specialist at NACCHO. Her work includes promoting local health departments’ best practices, as well as partner tools and resources, in infectious disease and preparedness through NACCHO’s communications channels, storytelling, and outreach to various audiences.

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