By Sincere Williams
STIs are on the rise across the nation and in our Peoria area. The most recent STI or sexually transmitted infection data for the United States shows that the rise occurs among the more common infections such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. Young men; men who have sex with men (MSM); and men of color, are disproportionately impacted. We can attribute the high male STI rates to a few things:
- lack of access to free or low-cost health clinics
- stigma surrounding STIs
- lack of meaningful sexual health education
- an exacerbation of these things—service barriers specifically—due to the COVID-19 Pandemic
As is the case with many other services, underserved communities have little to no reasonable access to STI clinics. The cost for available services can also be a barrier. In the aftermath of COVID-19, these barriers contributed to the rising disproportionate impact of STIs on young men and men of color. Many young men do not have the proper guidance on local resources and are left to seek out STI care on their own—or preferred to be discreet—and not seek healthcare guidance at all. Other men have reported cost barriers such as no insurance, not knowing how to navigate insurance and co-pays, the inability to pay out-of-pocket, and/or the inability to qualify for assistance programs. This lack of access to care can be especially troubling for young men, men of color, and MSM, too, as they face a large amount of stigma and social barriers when it comes to sexual health.
The harmful narrative surrounding sexual health due to societal norms and stigma always existed but was brought to light in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis began. HIV/AIDS was largely known as a “gay disease,” and still is today, with MSM and Black transgender women being disproportionately affected. Many people are misguided as to why that is and simply attribute it to one’s sexual behavior—then proceed to generalize that behavior. Many don’t realize the harmful narrative was accompanied by healthcare biases, plenty of which have been reported across the nation as present service barriers today: discrimination in medical services, such as refusal of services; lack of compassion and empathy; and low-quality care. These biases contribute to MSM from receiving the care they need. The medical community in the Peoria area has been working to promote messaging that doesn’t further stigmatize individuals and encourages them to know their sexual health status and be safe. Ending the HIV epidemic through education is one way to break the stigma that exists so heavily within our society.
Unfortunately, many men just don’t know. They don’t know about STIs, what symptoms to look for, when to get tested, where to go, who to talk to, and what to do. STI symptoms are often mistaken for a common itch or cold, sore throat—anything other than a sexually transmitted infection. Some common STI symptoms in men include:
- chancre sores (firm, round sores on or around the penis and/or anus, often itchy)
- unusual discharge from the penis
- blister-like pimples or sores and/or unusual sores in or around the mouth
- unusual sore throat, especially after a recent encounter
The low understanding of STIs contributes to daily global transmission and shows a need for further education for all, particularly for our young men, men of color, and MSM. Trustworthy and accurate information can be found from sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and state and local health departments. An important first step to curbing the high male STI rates in the U.S. is the dissemination of accurate information—including messaging on protection, prevention, awareness, local resources, and all that comes with being sexually active.
Many health departments and community clinics in the region provide STI services and education. In Peoria, services are available at medical offices and at the following locations:
- Peoria City/County Health Department, temporarily located at the Human Service Center 228 NE Jefferson Ave, Peoria, provides STI testing and treatment with information on their website at www.pcchd.org.
- Central Illinois Friends located at 120 NE Glen Oak Ave, Peoria, has services open to all, and specifically aids LGBTQ+ community members and people living with HIV/AIDS. See more information on their website at www.friendsofcentralillinois.org.
Sincere Williams, HIV/PrEP Navigator at Peoria City/County Health Department, provides his expertise to promote un-biased messaging on sexual health issues and promote healthy lifestyles.