A new study from the University of Kentucky and Indiana University has shown that more college women are infected with the little-publicized sexually transmitted disease trichomoniasis than with either chlamydia or gonorrhea.
The study analyzed a random sample of college women and found 4.8 percent had trichomoniasis, while only 2.8 percent were infected with chlamydia and 1.4 with gonorrhea.
Dr. Linda Niccolai, professor of epidemiology and public health at the Yale School of Medicine, said trichomoniasis is one of the most common STDs according to national estimates. According to the Web site of Centers for Disease Control, trichomoniasis is the most prevalent yet most curable STD in young women and is treatable with antibiotics.
However, trichomoniasis is not reported to the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Therefore, data on trichomoniasis is unavailable for New Haven and Yale, and doctors can only offer qualitative measures of its prevalence. Michael Purcaro, spokesman for the Conn. Department of Public Health said it is estimated that two million women are infected yearly.
“Trichomoniasis is not a reportable infection,” Niccolai said. “There are some STDs that are required to be reported to state health departments, like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis — [trichomoniasis is] just not as top of mind as other infections — but I think this is definitely a national phenomenon.”
Trichomoniasis’ lack of publicity is in part because it is not associated with the long-term reproductive damage of other STDs, Niccolai said, though she still recommended caution.
“Gonorrhea and chlamydia have very negative health consequences for pregnant women, for transmission to the baby. We just don’t hear that about [trichomoniasis],” Niccolai said. “But it’s a sexually transmitted disease like the others, and can result in negative health consequences.”
Trichomoniasis has also been linked with HIV disease and general high-risk behavior, and studies have shown it is the most common STD in women with HIV/AIDS, Niccolai said.
“The problem is that [trichomoniasis] has been shown in several studies to give an increased risk of HIV transmission, so it’s a facilitator of the HIV disease,” Niccolai said. “Infections with trichomoniasis, in general, indicate high-risk behavior.”
Purcaro said an added risk of the STD is that people are at risk for multiple infections because the disease is parasitic.
“Once you’ve been infected, you can get infected again — it’s not a typical viral or bacterial infection, where your body builds up defense,” Purcaro said.
Jeannette Ickovics, professor of epidemiology, public health and psychology, said these findings are important to show college students the necessity of protecting against STDs.
“The impact that [the study] should have is to show women and men in university settings they are not immune to sexually transmitted diseases and if they do engage in sex, they should engage in protected sex,” Ickovics said. “The consequences of STDs are really profound. [And] the risk of transmission from an infected man to a woman can be up to eight times more than the other way around. Young women really do need to protect themselves. We are physically, and I think, socially more vulnerable.”
In addition, trichomoniasis is not as easily diagnosed as other less prevalent STDs, though most STDs are very often asymptomatic in women, said Ickovics.
“Our diagnostic capabilities for trichomoniasis are not as accurate as for chlamydia and gonorrhea,” Niccolai said. “There’s hesitation on the part of providers to make a definitive diagnosis of trichomoniasis.”
Niccolai said she encouraged health providers to discuss the disease with their patients since many women are not conscious of the disease.
“Given that patients don’t know — I think that it’s the role of providers, when women come in for reproductive health care, for pap smears and contraceptives, [to] integrate [trichomoniasis] into the discussion,” Niccolai said.