Reproductive Health

Breaking the Cycle of Sexually Transmitted Infections

Some 340 million new cases of curable sexually transmitted infections (STIs) occur every year. The figure does not include HIV or other viral STIs — including hepatitis B, genital herpes and genital warts, which are not curable.

The most common of the curable STIs are gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. Their prevention and treatment is an important part of UNFPA’s mandate, as agreed to at the ICPD. Sexually transmitted infections constitute a significant health burden and increase the risks of transmission of HIV.

Sexually transmitted infections continue to take an enormous toll on health, particularly on women’s reproductive health. In fact, next to complications of pregnancy and childbirth, they are the leading cause of health problems for women of reproductive age. They can cause pregnancy-related complications, including spontaneous abortions, premature birth, stillbirth and congenital infections. They can also lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and cervical cancer. Every year, at least half a million infants are born with congenital syphilis. In addition, maternal syphilis causes another half million stillbirths and miscarriages annually. Most cases of infertility are attributable to STIs.

Women and young people at risk

Worldwide, the disease burden of STIs in women is more than five times that of men. The presence of one or more STIs increases the risk of becoming infected with HIV by two to nine times. Women’s greater susceptibility to these infections is based on both biological and social realities. Women’s health can also be affected by reproductive health tract infections that are not sexually transmitted, including vaginosis and candida.

Sexually active young people are especially vulnerable to STIs. Each day, some 500,000 young people, mostly young women, are infected with an STI (excluding HIV). Those who become sexually active at an early age are more likely to change sexual partners and risk greater exposure. Most know very little about these infections and many are reluctant to seek services. Many are unaware that condoms offer dual protection from unwanted pregnancy and STIs. Even if they want to use condoms, they may not have ready access to them, or may be unable to negotiate their use.

Strategies to prevent and treat STIs

UNFPA supports the integration and prevention and treatment of STIs within a package of reproductive services. For instance, screening of pregnant women is an important aspect of antenatal care, as STIs can be dangerous for both mothers and newborns. Making 'youth-friendly' reproductive health information and services readily accessible to young people is another cornerstone of UNFPA’s approach to the problem. UNFPA is also active in procurement and logistical support for both male and female condoms.

Other key strategies to combat STIs include:

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