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Sexually transmitted infections: tackling taboo illnesses on the frontline

Merlin - UK - Mon, 13 Feb 2012 16:51 GMT
Author: Merlin
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London, Monday, 13th February 2012 –

Valentine’s Day means red roses and romance for many but the downside of passion and unprotected sex is the vast number of people in pain and in danger of death from sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

In the countries where medical aid charity Merlin works, STIs number in the top five reasons for adults seeking health care.  In countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, women have limited access to contraception and often have no choice, or control, when it comes to sex.

In 2011, Merlin provided treatment for over 175,000 people with STIs as part of its health care programmes in some of the toughest places around the world.

In eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, around one in ten patients visiting Merlin clinics last year had STIs.1 Merlin provided treatment for more 60,000 people with STIs in North Kivu and Maniema, some of which are the result of rape. Common infections included syphilis, gonorrhoea and herpes. 

Miriam Bord, Health Officer for Merlin’s work in West and Central Africa said: “This is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite important work being done to increase awareness, people are reluctant to come forward.

“Many STIs can be treated with one or two courses of antibiotics; however illnesses such as syphilis and herpes present even greater danger to pregnant women.”

Between 4% and 15% of pregnant women in Africa test positive for syphilis2. Untreated early syphilis in pregnancy is responsible for 1 in 4 stillbirths and 14% of newborn deaths. Screening pregnant women for syphilis and preventing mother-to-child transmission could avoid nearly 500, 000 stillbirths per year in Africa alone.

To help protect new generations against infection, Merlin tests for STIs as part of their antenatal care, including HIV and Aids. In Nimule, South Sudan, 29-year-old Vicky Lawa discovered she was HIV positive while pregnant. "I started taking anti-retroviral drugs when I was seven months pregnant and, because of them, I'm still breastfeeding and I'm feeling fine now.” 

Thanks to Merlin’s treatment, Vicky is unlikely to pass on the infection to her son.

The International HIV/Aids Alliance is predicting a steep rise in infections in South Sudan. At a suspected hub for HIV on the Ugandan border, mother of three Akulu Susan, 28, became a sex worker in order to afford her children’s school fees.

Akulu always intends to use condoms, but has been persuaded not to for a price. "Some men come with huge money and say, 'Will you let me without a condom?' If they're offering 50 South Sudanese pounds [£11], I will say yes."

Nimule is just one area in which Merlin is distributing condoms and encouraging women to be tested for STIs. This is part of a wider programme which also includes:

  • Increasing access to sexual and reproductive health services
  • Counselling during health and outreach visits
  • Awareness raising and behaviour change communication
  • Health education

In Merlin’s projects, £1 could pay for:

  • 1 syphilis test kit
  • 3 penicillin injections
  • 5 pregnancy tests

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