Recently we sat down for an informal discussion with dermato-venereologist Dr. Valeska Padovese, who manages the GU Clinic at Mater Dei Hospital and holds regular clinics at Persona Med-Aesthetic Centre, to get a better idea of the current STI landscape. Pretty soon it became clear that over recent years we have adopted sexual behaviour that makes us vulnerable to STIs and the long-term dangers thereof.
Over recent years the numbers of various STIs, including HIV infection, being diagnosed annually in Malta have more than doubled. Dr Padovese elaborates on this and explains some of the underlying reasons as follows – “After big awareness campaigns in the 80’s and 90’s for HIV the numbers of infected people got under control. People were aware of the dangers and informed and comfortable about the use of preventive protection. This also had a positive effect on the numbers of other STIs. However, when numbers started to drop, the public-awareness campaigns also decreased or became non-existent.”
Besides the use of protection and our more cautious attitude at the time, the treatment of HIV and many other STI’s also kept progressing. “At the moment chances are very good that you’ll live a reasonably normal life with HIV, especially when diagnosed in an early stage. While this is great news on one hand, it also creates some problematic behavior”, Dr Padovese says. “People, even though they know their sexual behavior is risky, stopped using condoms and protection. This not only increases cases of HIV infection but also of other STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections).”
In addition to this, the fact that some STIs are becoming resistant to antibiotics and that many STI’s develop asymptomatically, meaning that there are no apparent symptoms, are further putting the population at risk. Dr. Padovese sees a lot of people coming in with late stage STIs, simply because symptoms only became apparent after many months or even several years. When this happens, treatment becomes more difficult, the STI could have caused complications in the patient (including possible infertility), and the chances of having infected other partners in the process are high.
When asked about specific trends in Malta, Dr Padovese expressed her worry by saying – “In Malta we’ve seen an increased trend in Chlamydia infections, especially in people in their 20’s, while Gonorrhea and Syphilis have increased dramatically in people over 30. HIV has been a growing danger – while before we saw HIV mainly in African migrants, now we are also diagnosing HIV also in EU citizens living in Malta and the local population.”
Furthermore, ‘casual sex’ has become more available than ever before, with social apps like Tinder and Grinder facilitating casual hookups. While not entering into the merits of this, it is easy to see how an increase in available sexual encounters combined with a decrease in awareness of STIs and the dangers of them, can be a recipe for disaster.
“Unfortunately”, she adds, “it is difficult to get a complete and more defined picture of the overall local situation since most people that do walk into the clinic are either well-informed and aware of the risks of contracting an STI, or have already developed symptoms for which they need treatment. To make a real positive difference in getting the numbers down again, it is of vital importance to create awareness among people whose attitude towards STI’s is more risky – sadly this group of people is growing and dangerously fast ” she concluded .