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Get yourself tested

Yuritzy Gonzalez Pena, an epidemiologist for Marion County Health and Human Services, presenting STD statistics at the Get Yourself Tested event. Photo by Taylor Wynia

Marion County Health Department discussed STDs with Chemeketa students and provided an opportunity for free testing.

Many students winced at the sight of discharging penises and syphilis chancres as experts from Marion County Health and Human Services presented a powerful presentation on sexually transmitted diseases.

Get Yourself Tested campaigns are happening all across the country due in large part to the CDC’s push to encourage those who are sexually active to be aware of their sexual health status. Marion County is doing its part to educate members of the Salem community.

“I was approached by some Marion County Health professionals,” said Joel Gisbert, Chemeketa’s Civic Engagement Coordinator for Student Retention and College Life. “They brought some alarming statistics about STDs, sexually transmitted diseases, in Marion and Polk County.”

“We’ve seen increased incidents of gonorrhea and chlamydia here,” said Dr. Christopher Cirino, a public health officer in the Salem area and an infectious disease specialist.

The presentation was led by Maricarmen Gomez, the program coordinator for Marion County Health and Human Services, Rebecca Chavez, a health educator, and Yuritzy Gonzalez, an epidemiologist who specializes in communicable diseases.

Gonzalez broke down STD rises in Marion and Polk county based on key demographics such as age, race and gender. Overwhelmingly, young adults aged 20-29 had higher reports of new cases of sexually transmitted infections. Women reported higher occurrences of chlamydia compared to men who had more instances of gonorrhea and syphilis.

“Something is happening in Marion County that is out of the norm for Oregon,” said Gonzalez. “What’s happening for this age group? We don’t know exactly.”

The goal of Get Yourself Tested events is not only to spread awareness to high-risk groups but to help give officials some insight into what is happening in the community and how they can fix this growing issue.

As the event continued, the women revealed even more troubling news.

According to Gonzalez, many people do not display symptoms of an STD; additionally, they often do not recognize signs due to a lack of education. Undiagnosed and untreated STDs can lead to numerous health issues, some among them including infertility, dementia, some forms of cancer and even death.

“It’s easier to get tested than it is to wait,” said Cirino. “In fact, I so many times have to tell patients who are already at that late stage, or [who are diagnosed with] AIDS, that it’s not 100% likelihood that you could survive. There’s a possibility that you might die.”

Cirino attended the event with his colleagues in a mission to “break the stigma about sexually transmitted infections and getting tested.”

“This is education,” said Gisbert, “Knowledge is power… When no one talks about it, you’re not getting any education and you kinda just go out and make uninformed choices.”

Chemeketa student Jason Harding felt similar on the issue. Before attending the event, Harding laughed as he disclosed his only STD education was a high school health class.

Harding said he learned a great deal from the presentation. “I’m more aware too, with all the statistics and graphs and everything… [STDs were] more like an afterthought, you know? Because I wasn’t so aware of how common it was.”

Flyers handed out at the event suggested people get tested every three to six months. Cirino believed it’s more complicated than that.

“If someone is having multiple partners, then they should probably get tested every three to six months… it is somewhat nuanced based on how many partners you have, but I’d say at least once a year.”

The event offered free on-site chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV testing in a separate classroom on campus and through a mobile testing van in the parking lot. Chlamydia and gonorrhea tests involve urine, oral and/or rectal tests depending on what type of sex a patient is having. For the convenience and comfort of patients, these were self-collected tests. Syphilis and HIV tests were conducted using blood samples. Students were able to get their HIV results within 15 minutes, but other tests were sent to a lab with results expected in two weeks.

“Everything is super confidential,” assured Gomez.

The Get Yourself Tested event successfully educated 27 students and screened 15 for STDs.

After asking students where they learn about preventing STDs and receiving answers like “health class” and “the CDC,” Chavez realized, “One thing I haven’t heard is with your friends!”

“We have to get that shame out in order for us to grow and help others,” said Cirino. “What you do not only affects you, or infects you, but others. It’s not just one person that’s engaging in that activity—it’s another person.”

The Marion County Health Department STD Clinic offers affordable testing at 3180 Center St. NE Salem, Oregon. For more information, call the clinic at (503) 588-5342.

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