Why an STD test could save your life

December 1, 2011

The word "test" makes most people cringe. Images of grammar school, pop quizzes, and the SATs come to mind.

Yet I've spent this month talking about a different sort of test - one that could help protect your health, and even save your life.

April was STD awareness month: a necessary distinction in a world where one in two sexually active people will get a sexually transmitted disease (STD) by the age of 25 -- and most won't even know it. Yet chances are you've been putting off getting tested for the very same reasons pop quizzes made you anxious -- you're terrified of the results.

Not getting tested for an STD won't mean you don't have one -- it just means if you have one you won't know about it. So do yourself and everyone in your life a favor. Don't let another day go by without getting tested.

Before you convince yourself that you're not at risk, consider the facts. The most recent national estimates suggest that there are approximately 19 million new cases of STIs each year, half of them among 15-24-year-olds, and that 65 million Americans have at least one viral STI, most commonly genital herpes. In New York City, the statistics are even higher. Our AIDS case rate is three times the national average -- making New York the epicenter of the epidemic. Our rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes are also far above the national average.

And when you break these numbers down by race or age, the statistics get even scarier. More than 80% of new HIV cases in 2008 were amongst men and women of color. For women, New York City's highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea occur in teenage girls, age 15-19. Amongst men, boys aged 15-19 have the second highest rates, trumped only by those aged 20-24.

To be sure, education is important too. New York City still does not require sex ed to be taught in schools -- a fact that's atrocious when you consider that about one in three young people in grades 9-12 are currently sexually active, and nearly one in five report having had four or more sex partners so far in their lifetime. Only two-thirds of New York City's sexually active youth report using condoms at all, and one in five girls did not use any birth control the last time they had sex.

Still, education doesn't replace the need for testing. Many STDs are treatable -- meaning the earlier they are detected, the earlier you can address them and the less serious they will become. A number of STDs are also symptomless -- meaning you could have one right now and not even know it.

STD testing is safe and easy. Getting tested protects your health, and can even save your life. You owe it to yourself -- get yourself tested.