By Hannah Popham

When a friend of mine checked himself in to get an STI test at a Dublin college health service for no other reason than confirming he was STI-free, he was met with a fairly demeaning response. The nurse on duty that day immediately asked him, “Did your girlfriend make you get this done?”

Hearing this story immediately posed a few warning bells in my head. Why would a college nurse assume that only a person in a relationship would care about their sexual health? Are single people not subject to more risk of STIs? Should a person only care about the possibility of infecting a partner if they have an emotional attachment to them? And most importantly, are men who are sexually active incapable of making their own decisions? This has hugely significant implications because it reveals the stigma that still surrounds sexual health screening in this country, even within the medical profession.

Comments

For another friend, Claire*, she had an equally insulting experience at the same college health service: “I stopped bothering getting tested in Ireland after not one, but two [nurses] looked at my medical history and made comments about the number of people I'd slept with. A couple of other non-Irish friends (all female, if that's maybe relevant) had similar experiences.”

During the summer, a sexual health survey conducted by Irish Life Health suggested that almost three in four people in Ireland have never had a sexual health test. Essentially, this means that 70% of people are walking around potentially infected with not only anything their sexual partners came into contact with, but anything their partner’s partners may have contracted.

Campus.ie’s 2013 National Student Survey found that 83% of students in Ireland have never been tested for STIs.

Just to prove that I am not simply scaremongering, let’s consider an inevitable excuse we have all told ourselves. Firstly, the age-old idea that “if I did have something I’d know about it”: Actually, according the Health Service Executive, by far the most common STI (chlamydia), will only cause symptoms in around 50% of infected men, and 30% of infected women. This is an infection that is estimated by Dublin Health Screening Clinic to affect one in 12 women aged 20, and which almost 6,000 people in Ireland contracted in 2009 alone.

The official reasons given in the survey may illuminate part of the problem, but seem limited. Over half (56%) said they remain untested because they are in a committed relationship. Unfortunately this assumes that prior to the relationship both they and their partner have never put themselves at the risk of infection. Most worryingly, a third gave the explanation that they are simply not concerned about sexual health, and 23% said they only practice safe sex so have no need for one.

Personal account

These may seem like somewhat logical reasons, but I personally have been berated by a nurse for making the simple assumption that a partner and I (who had both been tested) had never cheated on each other. Unfortunately, when an impact of a long ignored sexually transmitted infection can be as serious for a patient as future infertility, medical staff may never assume anything but the worst.

I fear that another element of not getting tested is the social stigma even amongst friends. Another friend I spoke to, Will*, who regularly gets tested said: “What I found odd is that whenever I told people I get tested they would take it weirdly, as if it meant I had something, or was symptomatic. It was a deterrent for a while.”

Others expressed fear of the procedure itself, making allusions to the male urethral swab, which is only done if a patient is experiencing symptoms. Fortunately, if you are a male with no symptoms, all your test will involve is a blood and urine test. For women, who are statistically more likely to test (35% rather than 24% of men), the standard a-symptomatic test will involve a cervical swab and examination and a blood test.

Simple procedure

Sean*, who waited a year after having unprotected sex to get tested, was pleasantly surprised by how easy the procedure was: “I really wanted to avoid it (and had no symptoms) but when I did go and get my test… I came up clean for not only what I thought I might have but everything. Not only that but the whole testing process made me feel more confident in getting checked out regularly.”

Luckily, getting tested when you are in college is extremely cheap (between €10-€20 depending on the college), but many of my friends who have graduated communicated that it can now cost over €100 to get one at their family GP. Although St James Hospital offers a free clinic on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, a few people I spoke to expressed frustration in their ticketing system, in which appointments are dispersed at 8am, difficult to get into if you are living outside the city.

This article first appeared in The Edition, DIT's independent college paper