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A new rise in STDs in Australia: let's analyse the reasons, the risks and how to fight it

Sexually transmitted infections are not new, but in recent years STI figures in Australia and other developed nations have increased at an alarming rate.According to health data from the Kirby Institute, in 2015, 18,588 bewildering cases of gonorrhea were detected, compared to 8,388 cases a decade earlier, in 2006. In just a decade, the number of cases of gonorrhea has more than doubled every year.

The same is true for other infections: in the same time frame, syphilis cases have more than tripled, while chlamydia cases have increased by 43%.

What's behind these changes?

More testing means more diagnosisExperts agree that with regard to chlamydia, most of the increase can be attributed to diagnostic tests.
Advances in technology have created more accurate tests, which have helped identify more infections.

The number of tests conducted has also increased over time.

More people perform tests more often and more accurately means, by default, more infection will be found.

Detecting more infections due to testing is a good thing, but it can also make changes over time more dramatic than they actually are.

However, what reasons could justify the increase in gonorrhea and syphilis?

Online appointments expand our sexual networks.
In the last decade, online dating has probably had the single largest impact on our sex life. Websites and apps designed to facilitate sex and romance are everywhere.

Love them or hate them, online services offer unique features that have interesting implications for the dissemination of STIs.
For example, they can make it easier to have sex with more people.
A recent Swiss study found that 35% of sexually active men and 21% of sexually active women reported five or more sexual partners in a year.

The men who found partners online were six times more likely to have five or more sexual partners than those who were not, and the women they attended online were seven times more likely.

This difference is important because the number of sexual partners you have is strongly related to your chance of getting an STI.
More people online mean more partners per person, which could mean more IST.

Sex and online dating also make it possible for connections to form between people who might not otherwise have met.

Our social networks tend to form with people who are like us in some way, whether that be via age, class, race, religion or simple geography.

While people can be highly selective online, the nature of online data can also break down traditional social groups.

If you have sex with someone who is very different from your usual type, it will alter the nature of your sexual network. This alteration can affect the spread of infections, particularly when a network has higher infection rates.

This is not the only explanation, though. Sexual networks and infection rates are influenced by many factors, of which only one.

But in our hyperconnected world, the possibility of sleeping with someone quite different from you - older, younger or something else altogether - greater than any other point in our history.

  • This increase in STIs is obviously also related to the use of condoms.
  • Condoms are the only way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
  • A recent study of single heterosexual men in Australia found that only 35% used a condom in their last sexual encounter with a casual partner.

There were also significant differences in age: men over the age of 50 were far less likely to use condoms than younger men. Instead, older men have relied on vasectomies as a form of contraception, which, unfortunately, is ineffective for preventing STIs.

Another study found that even for the younger ones who used condoms, almost half of them did it incorrectly or had slipped or broken.

These problems could compromise the effectiveness of condoms to protect young people from sexually transmitted diseases.

Meanwhile, although gay and bisexual men have historically reported fairly high rates of condom use, in recent years this seems to have diminished.

Another risk factor for STIs is travel.

In 2016, Australia recorded its highest number of short-term visitors, with more than 640,000 backpackers.

People are also travelling overseas more than ever before.

Travel can move infection from one part of the world to another. But more than that, people caught up in the joys of travel tend to engage in practices that put them at risk for STIs.

This includes the use of drugs and alcohol, having new or multiple sexual partners, and using condoms inconsistently.

Of course, no single explanation perfectly describes what is happening with STIs.

It's probably a combination of these and other factors leading to more infection.

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