A new variant of HIV with higher virulence was recently discovered by researchers at the University of Oxford. The strain has been circulating in the Netherlands for several years, infecting over one hundred individuals. Fortunately it is treatable with the standard antiretroviral medicines available today.
It is important to routinely test for STDs if you are sexually active, as most individuals do not experience any symptoms when infected. Identifying if you have an STI or STD early allows you to receive timely treatment and avoid long-term complications.
What to Know about the New HIV Variant
The new HIV variant is associated with a higher viral load, meaning that there are more viral particles inside the individual. This makes the person more infectious with increased transmissibility and immunodeficiency compared to other HIV variants. Luckily, the new variant is receptive to antiretroviral therapy which allows infected individuals to not only survive, but live their lives with HIV/AIDS. Antiretroviral therapy also prevents the transmission of the virus so it doesn’t spread to others.
Still, there are 10 million untreated individuals living with HIV today. The virus’s ability to mutate quickly is a huge obstacle in the development of an HIV vaccine. The discovery of the new variant puts pressure on the global HIV response to prevent a resurgence of the disease and treat those who have not been treated yet.
HIV is the deadliest pandemic of recent times with 680,000 people dying of AIDS-related illnesses in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has further disrupted HIV prevention efforts, highlighting the need for increased STD testing.
Importance of Getting Tested for STIs/STDs
Getting tested is often the only way to know if you have a sexually transmitted disease. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are the earlier stage of a sexually transmitted disease (STDs) and often show no symptoms. Screening regularly for STIs allows for earlier detection and treatment which can reduce long-term health complications.
STIs are very common, with more than 1 million people contracting an STI every day – most of which are asymptomatic. Many STIs/STDs are curable and the ones that are not can be treated by managing the symptoms with antibiotics or antiviral medications.
When to Get Tested for STDs
If you are sexually active, you should be tested once a year for STDs. If you have unprotected sex and/or multiple partners, you should get tested more frequently ranging from every 3 to 6 months. If one of your partners has tested positive for an STI/STD it is important to get tested immediately.
Screening recommendations vary based on age, sexual behavior, and sex. Below is a graphic displaying CDC recommendations of when and who should get screened for six STDs.
How to Prevent STDs
STDs are spread through sexual contact like oral, anal, and vaginal sex. Unless you refrain from sex, any sexual contact that involves bodily fluid and touching genitals puts you at risk for STDs.
Here are some ways to make sure you are doing the most you can to protect yourself and those around you from contracting an STD:
- Use protection during sex (condoms, dental dams, or internal condoms)
- Communicate with your partner/s
- Get tested
How to Talk to Your Partner About STIs/STDs
Discussing STDs and STD testing with a partner can feel awkward, uncomfortable, and even embarrassing, yet is important to have before sex. Having this conversation not only prioritizes your sexual health but shows respect for your partner too. Still, the nervousness around this conversation can make it difficult to talk about. Below are some tips on how to carry out the conversation:
- Know what you want from the conversation
- Pick a good time and place
- Contextualize it as a serious medical concern and speak in a factual tone
- Pause to see how your partner responds
- Be a good listener and show respect
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How Much Does STD Testing Cost?
Normally, you just pay the copay charged by your provider if you have health insurance. Without insurance, STD tests can become costly ranging from $49 - $500, with a full STD panel costing at least $108. Laboratory tests for STDs include blood tests, urine samples, fluid samples, or saliva tests. Below is a chart displaying the average costs of individual STD tests without insurance which normally includes a lab fee of $18 on average.
STD Test Costs
|Individual STD Tests||Average Price|
|HIV 1 & 2||$40|
At-Home STD Testing
At-home STD tests are a convenient, affordable, and effective alternative testing option. Testing companies are usually upfront and transparent with their at-home testing prices, so you don’t have to worry about surprise medical bills.
At-home testing kits are accurate and reliable if you follow the instructions carefully. There are many at-home testing kits with prices ranging from $24 to $500.
STD Test Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
It is important to get tested for STDs if you are sexually active. Below we answer some questions you may have about screening for STDs and what next steps to take after receiving a positive result.
Do I need to ask my doctor for an STD test?
Yes, STD testing is not always part of a regular checkup or gynecology exam. Therefore, it is important to inform your doctor of your sexual behaviors even if it may feel uncomfortable so they can help determine which tests you need based on your situation.
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Am I at an increased risk of STDs if I am a man who has sex with other men?
Yes. Men who have sex with men (MSM) are disproportionately at risk of contracting HIV in addition to having higher rates of syphilis. There are several risk factors unique to this demographic that increase the odds of infection ranging from the physiological, sexual, societal, and cultural risk factors.
Unprotected anal sex is 18 times more likely to transmit HIV than condomless vaginal sex because the rectum does not have as many epithial cells which act as a barrier, allowing the virus to get past this thinner layer of cells more easily.
A lack of adequate sex education for the LGBTQ+ community along with the stigma of either their HIV status or sexual orientation can prevent MSM from feeling safe and comfortable getting tested, especially if they are not out yet. Due to the increased risk of STDs, it is important to frequently test for STDs to prioritize your health.
If I am a sexually active straight man should I get tested for STDs?
Yes, if you are sexually active, it is important to routinely get tested for STDs, especially if you have multiple partners, have unprotected sex, or have a new partner. The CDC does not outline STD screening recommendations for heterosexual men like they do for women under 25, pregnant women, gay, bisexual, and MSM. This disparity comes down to cost and benefit.
According to the CDC, there is “insufficient evidence for screening among heterosexual men who are at low risk of infection” for Gonorrhea and Chlamydia. Whereas women are not only more vulnerable to these STDs because of their anatomy, but the health implications are more severe if left untreated. Additionally, limited funding causes the CDC to focus on recommendations for more vulnerable groups.
What do I do if I receive a positive result?
If you test positive for an STD, know you are not alone. Tell your partner/s if you test positive for an STD so they can get tested too. Telling your partner/s can be difficult but shows you care for their health and well-being. Visit your doctor or health care provider to discuss treatment options as well as additional testing if needed.
Is there a cure for HIV?
No, there is no effective cure for HIV, however, a cure may not be too far away. Researchers recently announced a woman was cured of HIV, becoming the third person ever to be cured. This novel treatment requires a transplant that uses umbilical cord blood which opens the possibility of a cure that works on individuals of more diverse racial backgrounds than previously thought.
This is extremely important scientifically and in terms of community impact as women account for more than half of HIV cases in the world yet only represent 11 percent of participants in clinical trials.
STDs are very common in the U.S. with half of all sexually active people contracting an STD by age 25. With an ongoing HIV pandemic, it is crucial to stay on top of your sexual health. If you are sexually active, you should get tested for STDs routinely to get treated before experiencing long term health implications and to prevent further spread.
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Erica graduated from Emory University in Atlanta with a BS in environmental science and a minor in English and is on track to graduate with her Master's in Public Health. She is passionate about health equity, women's health, and how the environment impacts public health.