Course Education Health MDIA2003_18 MDIA2003_IssuesTrendFeature_18 MDIA2003Wed2.30

Let’s talk about STIs: The conversation at high school, that needs to happen more

Claire Keenan. 

Today, it’s no longer just the ‘birds and the bees’, it’s about the need for teachers to break the stigma around sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and letting their students in on a secret: STIs are common.


The strict model schools follow to teach their students about STIs has become outdated and non-efficient, according to the rise of statistics among teenagers, echoing the need for better sexual education.


According to the 2017 surveillance statistics by the Kirby Institute, a rise of gonorrhoea, particularly among young heterosexual people in major cities, has increased by 63% over the past five years.


“We are at a time where there is less use of condoms, and progressively over the last 20 years’ people have become less and less afraid of HIV,” Professor Basil Donovan said, head of the Sexual Health Program at the Kirby Institute.


No longer held back by technology, medical advancements or the laws that prevented condoms to be on display in supermarkets, statistics of STIs should, logically, be declining.


However, it is the high school students that are the potential labourers, inventors, personalities or scientists of our future, that are still the most susceptible to contracting a STI in their early adulthood. This is despite their access to an educational system.


These individuals are a part of the 15 to 29-year-old bracket, accountable for the yearly Kirby Institute statistics, specifically the 258,139 positive testings of Chlamydia in the 2016.

Stacey Wood, a University student opening up about what it’s like to live with an STI. Photo: Claire Keenan

For University student Stacey Wood, it was the brief teaching of STIs during her PDHPE lessons at high-school that let her down, when she discovered she’d contracted chlamydia in 2017.


“I barely remember the sex ed I had, which is not good enough,” Miss Wood, a first-year medicine student said. “In high school they took the approach that ‘it’s not going to happen to you’”.


For Miss Wood and many other young students, early intervention of sexual education during schooling years, was to hopefully reduce the chances of contracting an STI. However, in reality it gave an impersonal, textbook definition detailing basic STIs statistics.


“Having experienced one, it’s like ‘oh my gosh’ I wish everyone knew about it and what it’s like to actually get one, because it’s really awful,” Miss Wood said.


STIs are caused by micro-organisms that are passed through during sexual encounters, and for most cases can be treated by antibiotics.


Unfortunately, many STIs are symptomless and if left untreated can cause pelvic inflammatory diseases for females and infertility for both sexes.


“I had no idea that STI’s were symptomless. We covered them very briefly, like what an STI is and I kind of had this understanding of it, but I wasn’t sexually active at the time,” Miss Wood said.


However, according to Professor Basil Donavon, technological developments in providing accessible treatment of STIs has never been so advanced, and statistics should be on the decline.


“In suburbs around Sydney, there are self-testing machines, where you just go and touch the screen and say what you’ve been doing,” he said. “The screen will say what test to do and you collect and leave it in the basket. You then get an SMS three days later to say it’s all clear or come into the clinic”.


Professor Basil Donovan, who is also a registered sexual health physician, is passionate about dedicating his time to research and national surveillance of STIs, in Australia.

Professor Donovan at the Kirby Institute. Photo: Nicole Chen

“A lot of our failures is really just we’re not very good at delivering, like in the case of remote aboriginal communities. They’ve got sky-high sexually transmitted infections but they don’t behave differently to the Anglos in the city. So, it’s not the behaviour, that is the risk,” he said.


Mr. Jason Munday, a PDHPE teacher at Concord High School in Sydney’s inner west, agrees that by no means are teenagers more promiscuous than previous generations.


“I’m not certain people are having more sex but when they choose to have it, I would say it’s a little bit easier than it was in previous generations,” he said. “In terms of hooking up, I do think that schools need to have more of a discussion about how and when that can happen”.


To this day, an attitude of misconception and an illusion of ‘this won’t happen to me’ surrounding STIs, is consistently being construed by students from their lessons learnt at school.


“It’s a lack of education from an authoritative level, a lack of education in high school. And the stigma around STIs perpetuates this,” Miss Wood said.


Teachers like Mr. Munday, agree that there needs to be a more progressive and relevant program for the teaching of sexual health education.


“Instead of focusing on one subject in what we call an ‘isolated manner’, we try to thread it into other subjects so it’s more real,” he said. “But we have an over-crowded curriculum, so we tick the box that we’ve taught, but have we explored it at the level that I think we should have? Probably not”.


“Teachers tend to talk about committed relationships, safe environments, planned events, but that’s not the reality of the world we live in,” Mr. Munday said. “But trying to teach that in a curriculum with parents that are obviously very nervous about those conversations, is challenging”.


STIs are first typically introduced to students in year eight, and by year nine and 10 lessons begin teaching the barrier methods in preventing infection, and which are more common to catch.


“Whenever we are teaching chlamydia, if there’s 25 kids in the class, 5 of them have heard of it, 20 of them are not so sure,” Mr. Munday said.


Even with the yearly effort PDHPE teachers put in to cover the topic of STIs, there seems to be over an over-estimated amount of how much time is available in schools, to teach students everything.


From a recent survey we conducted, out of 41 university students, 68.3% responded by stating they were given no clinical information or where to seek help, in year 11 and 12.


Photo: Survey results

Moreover, 75.6% responders answered no, to whether a health expert visited their high school and common responses for those who did, stated “It was very beneficial” and “having a health expert speak aided in trusting information”.


At the time of being taught about STIs, what many students may not be aware of, are the free facilities that are scattered around Australia’s major cities and most rural towns. These include sexual health clinics and foundations such as Headspace, that provides free consultations with a GP or a nurse.


Headspace is an Australian based mental health foundation. Photo: Claire Keenan


Despite these positive progressions, students aren’t taught enough substantial and practical information on the risks, preventions and treatment of STIs, at the time when it is most needed.


“In universities they have sexual health awareness a lot. But again, it’s targeting a different age group, targeting an age group that probably already has one,” Miss Wood said.


There is a clear indicative that Australian educators need to crack

onto the education and stigma of STIs, to overcome this trend.


“My attitude is totally different now. I’m not as embarrassed a year on and everyone should know about STIs,” Miss Wood said.


 My piece-to-camera