Life Health & Wellbeing

Sunday 20 October 2019

'After my 'chlamydia surprise' I am now not ashamed to say I get tested regularly for STIs'

Testing positive for chlamydia at just 23, Michelle Heffernan, now aged 30, believes that sexual screening and sexual health need to be a bigger part of the conversation in Ireland

Michelle Heffernan points out that everyone can have access to free STI testing in Ireland. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Michelle Heffernan points out that everyone can have access to free STI testing in Ireland. Photo: Dylan Vaughan

I was 23 when I had my first STI test. I had been sexually active for five years, but never sought one; I had mostly always used protection and besides, I didn't have any symptoms. So it was a real shock when the test came back positive for chlamydia.

Like most other young women my age, my major concern up to this point had been crisis pregnancy. A Catholic all-girls school had driven home the "perils" of sex before marriage with warnings of murderous abortions. I distinctly recall being told not to have sex at all unless I was prepared to have a baby. Countless times in those first few years of college, I had panicked I was pregnant, always laughing after a home test at my melodramatic paranoia. Not once had I thought about STIs, or worried about the inflammatory disease, cancer or infertility they could cause.

According to the HPSC (Health Protection Surveillance Centre), in the first week of February alone, 216 people in Ireland have tested positive for chlamydia, 15 for HIV and 20 for syphilis. I caught my infection early then, and thankfully it was treated swiftly. But it was pure chance I had been tested in the first place. I had really only gone along to support a friend. Why had I never worried about sexually transmitted infections before? Why weren't my friends talking about STIs as much as they did about crisis pregnancy? And why had no one told me that STIs could have no symptoms?

Martin Davoren is Executive Director of the Sexual Health Centre in Cork, an non-profit organisation dedicated to positive sexual health. According to Martin, Ireland has seen a huge increase of sexually transmitted infections across all demographics.

"We're seeing an increase in chlamydia, gonorrhoea, HIV, genital warts... and it's not just a young person's problem. We're seeing people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s all presenting with STIs." I asked Martin why people aren't getting tested, and sure enough, he pointed the finger towards lack of education and information.

"A lot of people might think coming in to a clinic is a scary experience. It's blood tests, a urine sample (for men), it's not a scary experience. People don't know what supports are available to them, free of charge, and they don't recognise what a sexual health screening is going to be - and that is down to sexual education."

I was still curious if I had somehow missed the class about asymptomatic STIs and sexual health centres. I opted to survey my own peer group on their knowledge of sexual health screening, asking 160 of my Facebook friends to answer questions about their sexual health. (Yes, it was anonymous and no, it was not easy to convince them to do it!) I didn't know whether to be relieved or appalled when I found that their ignorance matched my own.

Out of the 100 men I surveyed, 35pc had never had an STI test. Some 50pc of the guys had no idea that a routine check for men was non-invasive, meaning some had probably needlessly avoided it. Out of the 60 women I questioned, over half had no idea that STI tests were available free of charge from HSE clinics and free clinics like the Sexual Health Centre, while 25pc had no idea that an STI could have no symptoms. I couldn't believe these results. Here was a group of well-educated, attractive, ambitious, and all round conscientious people, and some of them could potentially, unbeknownst to themselves, be carrying infectious diseases and infecting others.

I could now completely understand why chlamydia rates have risen ten-fold since the 1990s. People are having more sex, which is wonderful, but there's been no relevant increase in the quality of their education. Indeed the Sexual Health Centre recently conducted a focus group with 98 UCC students and found that all students agreed crisis pregnancy was their major concern - not STIs. Contraception, consent, copulation, these all do need to form part of a healthy sexual education, but at some point we're missing the slides on STIs and for the sake of our own health, and the public health, we need to redress this, especially when we're now seeing some STIs becoming over-diagnosed, over prescribed and antibiotic resistant.

I asked Martin what we can do ourselves to move society more towards a positive sexual health experience, and he rightly recommends making sexual screening and sexual health part of the conversation. "Everyone is having sex," Martin says. "Sexual health is part of everyone's life… I believe sometimes we don't have the support - no one ever taught us the tools on how to speak about sexual health. Stigma and judgement play a massive role in Irish society. A girl who carries condoms is not a sexual deviant, she's a person taking control of her own life.

"There's a role to normalising sexual health and it's the responsibility of every single individual in Ireland to be a listening ear, to know services so you can protect yourself, to advise a friend or colleague, not to make a joke of it; because its serious, sometimes and it's part of our lives".

Seven years after my 'chlamydia surprise' I am now not ashamed to say I get tested regularly for STIs. If I'm considering a new sexual partner, I ask them about their last test before 'I give the green light'. I encourage my male and female friends to get tested, reminding them it's completely free (and you get free condoms there too) and I have even educated my parents to be STI wise now they're both back on the dating scene.

I believe Martin Davoren is right when he says, "everyone has a right to positive sexual health". Everyone is having sex, sexual health is a part of everyone's life and it's just as important to look after your sexual health as it is your mental health, cardiac health, gut health and so on. We are now finally opening up the conversation here about sex and we need to make sure it's as open and educated as possible.

It is our State's responsibility, but also our own, to have the chats, check the facts, get tested, get protected. And so, from Martin, and myself, I wish you all some very happy, very healthy and totally safe sex.

For your closest free HSE Sexual Health Centre go to: sexualwellbeing.ie/sexual-health/hse-sti-services-in-ireland.html

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