By Tracy Cabrera
THE global coronavirus pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our daily life—from grocery runs to where and how people go to work—and even in our house chores and activities. But there is one major thing that Covid-19 has affected that isn’t getting a lot of attention and that is sexual health.
According to clinical obstetrics and gynecology professor Dr. Lauren Streicher of the Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Evanston, Illinois, “there is no question that people have been avoiding going to the doctor for routine stuff, like sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening and contraception,” and it would be too soon to know that “we’re going to see an uptick STIs and pregnancies related to this.”
This, Streicher said, is because people’s sexual health needs haven’t stopped despite the pandemic.
In support, Rutgers Department of Urban Global Public Health chair Leslie Kantor disclosed that people still need to undergo testing for sexually transmissible infections (STIs), receive regular sexual health and reproductive checkups and get the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV). However, Kantor adds that in some cases access may have changed.
“Depending on what someone needs, their access might be worse or conceivably better in some places because of telemedicine. Many people are also hesitant to go to the doctor over Covid-19 fears, and that can have serious implications for sexual health,” she said.
The Rutgers professor likewise noted how some people experience fears around the virus and this is becoming a big issue for sexual health.
“Those fears have manifested in a slew of different ways, and all of them have the potential to influence sexual health. When the pandemic first hit, some ob-gyn offices and sexual health clinics briefly shuttered or only offered telehealth services to allow doctors and administrators time to adjust for new protocols. Even though most reopened soon after, many patients are still wary of going to the doctor over fears of contracting the virus,” she said.
She explained that lowered vaccination rates “are now becoming a big problem” for sexual health.
“Vaccination for everyone over the age of two has gone way down, and that includes the HPV vaccine,” Kantor noted.
Her concern, she stressed, is that this could eventually lead to an increased risk in several forms of cancer that are associated with human papillomavirus (HPV), including cervical cancer, as well as cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus and oropharynx.
Streicher revealed that most doctor’s offices are “trying really hard” to make their facilities safe and inviting for patients.
“We are so careful. (Actually) the risk of getting COVID-19 from coming to a doctor that’s doing everything right is slim to none,” she said.
However, there are some who say that diagnosis and prescription can be done through telemedicine.
Still, Streicher pointed out that “when people have sex, there’s still a risk of contracting an STI.”
“If you have symptoms of an STI, you may also be able to consult with your provider over telemedicine before getting referred for testing. Also, telemedicine is very much up and running,” says Kantor. “That may give some people access to sexual and reproductive healthcare in any place they prefer,” the gynecologist said.
While social distancing practices and fears over the virus may make it more difficult for some single people to have sex, overall, “people are still going to be having sex,” Streicher warned. That’s true for couples as well, she said, noting that there’s “no reason not to have sexual activity with an established partner.”
There have been some reports, however, of the severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus-2 or SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes Covid-19—being detected in the vagina.
“(But it’s) very rare,” she quickly added. “The major risk with having sexual activity is the respiratory stuff—breathing on someone. It’s hard to get close enough to have sex without respiratory contacts, but if you’re both wearing masks all the time and it’s a new partner, the actual act of having intercourse is probably OK.”