Sexuality and Health Challenges: Responding to a Public Health Imperative

Article excerpt

The situation of sexual health and sexual behavior in the United States presents a challenge. As we are able to better measure STDs (including HIV) in the population, and as broad surveys show the extent of sexual dysfunctions and sexual abuse, it is apparent that we are presented with a challenge. If we do not address this challenge, we may be presented with a crisis in the future. Part of the challenge is the relative silence surrounding sexual issues in the community. Where sexuality is discussed, it is largely by the entertainment industry, through scandal reported in the media, and by commercial sources. What has been missing is widespread debate in the community and among health professionals which determines what the community values and concerns are, and how sexual health and promotion of responsible sexual behaviors are to be addressed. It is clear that the dangers of not discussing sexual health and responsible sexual behaviors now strongly outweigh any possible advantages of silence.

What are the sexual health issues which challenge us at the start of the new millennium? These include the prevalence of STDs and HIV, infertility and cancer resulting from STD infections in women, the rate of sexual dysfunctions in the population, sexual abuse and discrimination on the basis of sexuality, and the level of unwanted pregnancy.


STDs are prevalent in U.S. society and their levels are alarming. Five of the top 10 most commonly reported diseases in the U.S. are STDs. Rates of curable STDs in the U.S. in 1995 were the highest in the developed world and higher than in some developing regions (Eng & Butler, 1997).

Chlamydia is the most commonly reported infectious disease in the United States. The reported rate for women in 1998 was five times the rate reported for men, and the highest rates in women were among 15 to 19 year olds. The rates in White non-Hispanic women were 161.9 per 100,000; in Hispanic women, 599.1 per 100,000; and in Black non-Hispanic women rates were 1,444.6 per 100,000 (Stamm, 1999).

Gonorrhea increased by 8.9% between 1997 and 1998. Like Chlamydia, rates were highest in 15 to 19 year old women and Black non-Hispanic people accounted for 77% of cases. Of considerable concern, nearly 30% of gonococcal samples collected in 1998 were resistant to penicillin, tetracycline, or both. Thus, gonorrhea is becoming resistant to the two of the most common drugs used to treat it (Hook & Handsfield, 1999).

A significant source of Infertility (accounting for 15% of infertility in women) is Chlamydia and Gonorrhea. After one infection, about 8% of women will be infertile through damage to their Fallopian tubes; after two infections, 20%; and after three, 40% of women will be infertile (Hook & Handsfield, 1999). Up to two thirds of cases of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea in women, and up to a quarter in men, have no clear symptoms.

New genital herpes cases are estimated at 1 million per year. It is estimated that 45 million people are infected with genital herpes (about 21%, or over 1 in 5 of the adult U.S. population: Fleming et al., 1997). Less than 10% of these were aware of their herpes infection. There is no cure for genital herpes and the infection persists for life.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is a sexually transmissible virus which causes genital warts, and four HPV subtypes are also responsible for an estimated 95% of cases of cervical cancer. In 1992, cervical cancer was the most common cause of STD-related death in women. A significant number of cervical cancer cases are detected early and treated successfully by women having regular Pap smears to detect it. It is estimated that there are 5.5 million new genital HPV infections per year, and the estimated cost of treating cervical cancer exceeded $4.5 billion in 1994 (Koutsky & Kiviat, 1999). …