Latinas have a higher incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as gonorrhea and chlamydia than do non-Hispanic white women, says the Office on Women’s Health. If left untreated, those infections can result in infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease, cancer, or more serious conditions, such as HIV.
According to a report from the University of Washington, the disproportionate number of Latinas affected by STIs has to do with the limited symptoms some of such infections present, cultural stigmas about sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases, and a lack of knowledge and awareness on risks. Poor access to health care is another major contributing factor for this particular disparity.
Because many STIs are detected through routine wellness screenings, a lack of health insurance or access to providers means many Latinas do not receive regular preventative care. Due to the often vague symptoms of gonorrhea, for example, the University of Washington reports 85 percent of women with this STI delay medical treatment.
The same is often true for chlamydia, a disease that progresses into pelvic inflammatory disease in as many as 40 percent of cases. Between the years of 2002 and 2006, the rates of chlamydia rose 12.7 percent among the Hispanic population in the U.S., with an average incidence three times higher than for non-Hispanic whites.
Gonorrhea rates during the same time period rose 17.7 percent among Hispanics, twice that of the gonorrhea prevalence among non-Hispanic whites. Cases of syphilis rose more than 12 percent to 1.9 times that of non-Hispanic whites.
Because it is not possible to tell if someone has an STI by looking at them, and because partners may not always be forthcoming about disease information, prevention starts with education. Researchers recommend Latinas seek wellness screenings from culturally and linguistically appropriate places to ensure the proper sharing of information.
Other preventative measures include:
- Learning about sexual health from a professional advisor (Latinas should be encouraged by professionals to ask sexual health questions)
- Finding a health care provider willing to openly discuss sexual health regardless of cultural stigmas (Many doctors feel Latinas — especially older Latinas — are reluctant to discuss sex, and therefore don’t bother to ask important health questions)
- Educating both men and women about sexually transmitted diseases (While Latinas face a high prevalence of STIs, male Latinos also need to know the risks.)
- Offering complete sexual health classes in the school systems (Primary school may be the only source of sexual education Latinos receive)
- Avoiding substance abuse (may lead to risky behavior)
- Knowing if you or a partner are considered at risk (Many people assume they are not at risk and therefore do not get tested)
- Getting tested regularly for STIs (Those who are at risk need regular testing)
- Understanding men and women can transmit STIs equally (and homosexual partnerships are not at a lower or a higher risk)
- Knowing most birth control methods will not prevent STIs (Birth control pills and other forms of female birth control are not reliable methods of STI prevention)
- Using condoms correctly during intercourse
- Having only one, long-term sexual partner
- Abstaining from sex
Womenshealth.gov states that while prevention is important, no single preventative method will completely protect Latinas from contracting a sexual disease. The steps mentioned work best when used together, says the organization, and Latinas must learn to place greater importance on their health care needs.
“As a culture, Latinas are always putting our needs dead last,” said Dr. Jane L. Delgado, chief executive of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health. “We are reluctant to seek help and generally won’t see a doctor unless we are truly sick and in pain.”