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Few Realize Sexually Transmitted Disease Risk

Many Americans Don't Protect Themselves From Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B

WebMD Health News

April 6, 2004 -- Many Americans say they protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) but few actually use protection on a regular basis. In fact, few even know that hepatitis A and hepatitis B are sexually transmitted, or that they are at risk.

A nationwide survey -- unveiled today by the American Social Health Association -- points to lack of awareness about STDs that may put many Americans at risk. The survey assesses sexual attitudes, behaviors, and knowledge of STDs in American adults aged 18 to 35.

Among those surveyed, less was known about viral hepatitis than other common STDs like HIV, chlamydia, human papilloma virus, genital herpes, and gonorrhea. More than half were unsure or had not been vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B, the only STDs that can be prevented through vaccination.

"People simply don't believe they are at risk," says James A. Allen, MD, MPH, president of the American Social Health Association. "This false sense of security is problematic, as it can lead to exposure to serious, incurable diseases."

The survey showed:

  • The vast majority -- 93% -- believed their current or most recent partner didn't have an STD, yet about one in three had never discussed it with their partner.
  • About one-half -- 53% -- said their partner had been tested.

  • Almost three out of five people -- 57% -- did not know that hepatitis A can be sexually transmitted.

  • Two out of five -- 44% -- did not know that hepatitis B can be sexually transmitted.

  • Nearly 97% knew that HIV can be sexually transmitted, yet hepatitis B can be 100 times more contagious than HIV.

  • Over one-half -- 60% -- had not been vaccinated or were unsure whether they had been vaccinated against either hepatitis A or B.

  • Nearly one out of three people -- 28% -- did not know that someone can have hepatitis A or B and not know it.

Hepatitis A virus can be spread during oral-anal sex. However, one in four cases occurs when someone shares living quarters with an infected person or has sexual contact with that person, according to a news release. Hepatitis B can be spread during sex - either through direct or indirect contact with infected blood or body fluids such as semen and vaginal secretions.

Together, hepatitis A and B cause more than 170,000 infections and more than 5,000 deaths each year in the U.S. However, many people do not know they could protect themselves through vaccination. Nearly 50% of hepatitis B infections show no symptoms.

Among older children and adults, about 30% of infections do not cause jaundice -- yellowing of eyes and skin -- which is the only visible symptom of viral hepatitis.

Hepatitis C, which can also be sexually transmitted, cannot be prevented with a vaccination.

Beyond their reluctance to discuss STDs with their sex partners, many people appeared hesitant to seek information from their doctors, according to surveyors. Nearly 70% asked their doctors for health information, but less than half had ever mentioned STDs like hepatitis A or hepatitis B, they said.

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