Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Student Travel: A Q+A with Dr. William Siegart

While most college-age students have been aware of the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and the need to practice safe sex for years, reminding and educating study abroad students on the risks of sexually transmitted diseases provides yet another opportunity for institutions to prepare and help protect their constituents before they depart for their programs abroad. Below, our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. William Siegart, shares information you can use to help prepare and educate your students on this tricky yet important topic.

What are the symptoms of an STD?
Dr. Siegart:
Symptoms can vary depending on the type of STD, but most STDs don’t have any symptoms. In some cases, symptoms include pain during urination or sex, discharge, or an unexplained rash. After having unprotected sex, students should speak to a doctor as soon as possible about getting tested.

Does travel contribute to the transmission of STDs?
Dr. Siegart: According to the CDC, 1 in 5 travelers say they had sex with a new partner while in a foreign country. Travel can be a major factor contributing to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases as a result of diminished social barriers in new environments. While traveling abroad, many travelers may let their guard down and not be thinking clearly, therefore be more prone to engage in risky behavior.

What is the most common STD diagnosis for travelers?
Dr. Siegart: Worldwide, eight types of STD infections are the most frequently encountered. The types of STDs acquired during travel are wide ranging, but the most frequently reported diagnosis is gonorrhea. Following gonorrhea infection in frequency are: herpes simplex virus type 2, chlamydia trachomatis, primary syphilis, and primary human immunodeficiency infection While gonococcal infection is the most frequent cause of STDs in travelers, unusual infections such as donovanosis and lymphogranuloma venereum may be encountered in tropical regions, for example.

Are there any high risk areas for contracting STDs?
Dr. Siegart:
More important than the prevalence of a specific STD type in any given geographic location is the growing development of antibiotic resistance. These resistant strains do not remain restricted in one location for very long as  ease of travel spans the globe. With it comes the opportunity for people to take infectious diseases with them, including STDs, and transmit them elsewhere.

Are there areas of the world where particular diseases are more rampant and therefore more of a risk?
Dr. Siegart
: Certain regions of the world will have differing prevalence of varying STDs. Developing countries are more likely to have a higher incidence. While it may begin in one area of the world, rapid spread occurs through today’s easy access to world travel. Of most recent concern is the increase in drug-resistant gonorrhea spreading around the globe.

What is the treatment for an STD?
Dr. Siegart:
Treatment varies depending on the type of STD. Bacterial STDs can be treated with antibiotics. Viral STDs can’t be cured, but symptoms can be treated with medication. Gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis are curable while hepatitis B, herpes simplex virus (HSV), HIV, and human papilloma virus (HPV) are not.

How can institutions help their students, lower risk, and facilitate prevention?
Dr. Siegart:
Sexual activity and STD risk, including advice for disease prevention, should be discussed openly as a part of pre-travel screening and preparation. Laws and cultural norms related to sexual activity and gender should also be discussed prior to travel as they can vary widely by destination. Students should consider the context of these risks and assume a greater degree of caution as necessary.

What should students do if they begin experiencing symptoms abroad or think they may be at risk for an STD? How can they get help?
Dr. Siegart:
Students should be medically evaluated and tested as soon as possible. If they continue to be sexually active, they should utilize safe sex practices. Preferably, they should remain abstinent until medically evaluated and tested. This testing can be performed at a primary care physician’s office, most urgent cares centers, and public health clinics. Also important to keep in mind is that some means of safe sex, reproductive health services, and contraception may be more difficult to obtain abroad, or the quality may vary. Students can contact their institution’s travel risk management firm if they need help finding qualified, reputable medical providers and pharmacies in their destinations.

Want more information on pre-travel preparation and holistic risk management? Contact us today.