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To Test or Not to Test: South Asians Dismissing STDs

She was embarrassed, hurt, ashamed, and most importantly: She felt betrayed. Earlier that day Puja called up Nisha complaining about strange symptoms she had been having. Scared of what these symptoms were of, Nisha recommended Puja go to the Health Services center on campus and see what was going on. With some emotional support, Puja finally decided to get it checked out. Shortly, Nisha got a call that was hardly audible with a mix of sniffing and bawling; it was something that they never thought it would be…chlamydia. “What should I do now? What treatment is there? Is there a treatment? How will I pay for the medicine? But most importantly, how will I do all this without my parents finding out?”

This is just one of the many conversations that are occurring daily among South Asian women. Although Puja was able to get her treatment, she used the excuse of having a staph infection when she told her parents.

I still remember when I was in high school and had to write papers on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as they are also commonly known as. At dinner, my parents asked me what homework I was working on, and for my health class we had to write a STD newspaper, covering ‘headlines’ about different STDs, incorporating the facts from the ‘STD fact sheet’. After mumbling what I was working on, an awkward moment of silence ensued during which my mom seemed to choke on her rice. It’s nothing new that it is hard to talk about love and relationships with traditional desi parents, but talking about sex and STDs always seems to be at another level of being the ultimate ‘taboo’.

Although, from a historical and religious perspective, sex was an issue that most cultures openly accepted, but due to recent cultural perceptions and the title of ‘social taboo’ put on the act, ithe silence has harmed humanity more than protect us. According to a Canadian article “STD testing overlooked for South Asian women: activist”, health activists are saying that women who belong to the South Asian community in Toronto are not getting their annual sexually transmitted diseases check-up as other women, who do so ‘consistently’. Sadly, this issue is broader than just an occurrence in Toronto.

For the next week Puja tried to avoid her boyfriend’s calls and did not know what to do. She felt alienated and was worried about how to talk to him, or whether to let it go, though her doctor had encouraged her to make sure he was treated as well. Like most concerned friends would recommend, Nisha wanted Puja to talk to her boyfriend, but Puja did not even know where to start.

Since we are too often caught up in our world of the stereotypical ‘desi’, we think we will not be infected, will not get pregnant, will not…followed by more ‘will not’s’.  The biggest problem is that we never think it will happen to us.

What can you do?

  1. Be comfortable with your body. If you know what you are doing to your body and are familiar with it, you will be able to detect any changes and be able to take the actions needed right away.
  2. Respect your body. If you are willing to share the only thing that you have full claim over, your body, then you have every right to know what you are getting you and your body into.
  3. Save another. If you have something, and you are aware of this, you can take the right precautions before getting someone else infected. Imagine if you had the same done to you, wouldn’t you be grateful?
  4. Raise awareness. If you infected, be sure to share with your doctor, this will not only help you to take action, but also help when evaluating South Asians as a population, who have a growing number of individuals infected with STDs.
  5. Get tested together. Go with your significant other, or even friends, it will help you to raise awareness and at the same time share a bonding experience that can make a difference!
  6. Sit down and talk to your significant other. If you cannot sit down and talk to him/her about it, are you sure you want to be in this ‘it’s complicated’ or any relationship with him/her?

By having this denial about not being just as vulnerable to an STD as the person next to us, we are letting ignorance get the best of us. I see a lot of research that is being done about the attitudes regarding sexual health, but it was so hard for me to find some statistics for the number of people actually infected with sexually transmitted diseases. Currently, the biggest threats for South Asians, besides HIV/AIDS, are rising numbers of Asians being infected with Chlamydia and Gonorrhea. Among the Asian population in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the prevalence rate has gone up in 2007 to 18.8 cases per 100,000 population, and the rate at which patients have been diagnosed with Chlamydia has increased by 1.5%. This is all data based on people who sought to get treatment and tested for these infections. The question still remains about how many are left untreated. It is quite sad that both Chlamydia and Gonorrhea can be treated by taking an oral antibiotic for a week or two, and yet so few choose to take such action. What is taking medicine for one week, when if overlooked and left untreated, can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (infection of the female reproduction organs), an ectopic pregnancy (implanting of the embryo outside of the uterus), and infertility (inability to produce children), just to name a few. Ladies, this does not only effect us, men can also develop nongonococcal urethritis (infection of the urethra, used to pass urine), epididymitis (infection of the tube that carries sperm), or proctitis (inflammation that occurs in the rectum). It’s important to note that all of this can be passed onto the embryo as well, and cause severe damage.

Moreover, individuals aren’t the only ones to blame, but rather doctors are just as much responsible for this rising issue. In the Canadian article, Jag Parmar, an HIV/AIDs case worker, with the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention noted that “There are many doctors, just because you’re not married, when you’re doing the physical, they’ll just go down the checklist and just tick no, without asking. And sometimes the mom is in the room. How are you going to have that conversation?” Parmar’s observation reflects that in reality women do usually go with someone, whether it is their husband, or child, and when asked about testing for STDs, the automatic response for husbands and mothers is that their wife, or child does not need such tests. It is somewhat offensive to South Asians to even ask to be tested. The answer to such a question is always that snobby-toned, ‘Me? Do you think I would get myself in a position to get an STD?!’ What South Asians don’t realize is that it is about the overall health and well-being of each individual.

I remember every time I would go to the doctors, even though I was probably 16 at the time, my mom would sit in the room and ask the doctors to ask the questions regarding my ‘sexual health’ in front of her. Although I had nothing to hide, it made me feel awkward to answer such questions in front of my mom and so I quickly rushed through saying no to everything. Imagine if I actually did or had something and then had to explain. I would not admit to anything to avoid facing the horror of the reaction from my family and friends. Not only is it the ‘shame’ that comes with getting involved with such an act, but also the possible disowning, taunting, and guilt that comes with the knowledge of having such a disease/infection.

This all goes back to the concept that there is to be no sex before marriage, and because of that the South Asian communities bring assumption into a field of study in which nothing is to be assumed. Thus, a dangerous divide exists between the South Asian community and awareness of STDs. There is more to STDs than just transmission by a sexual encounter. As a student studying pre-medicine, it is a shame to see that the South Asian community takes such large leaps towards success in every field, with a growing number of South Asians entering the medical field, and yet still taking a step back by holding cultural expectations which are hindering preventative STD health measures. It is important to note that most of the STDs have a cure, it is a matter of time and early detection, so even though it is a scary thought, be safe and get checked, it is better to know, than be another statistic in the growing number of South Asians with an undetected STD. – Munia Islam

*names have been changed.


Sources:

1) Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Health Disparities in HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STDs, and TB

2) WedMD: Sexual Conditions

3) Yahoo Canada! News: STD testing overlooked for South Asian women: activists

15 thoughts on “To Test or Not to Test: South Asians Dismissing STDs

  1. Very informative and well written article, not to mention that it’s actually interesting! Well done!

  2. Such a true, and relatable article! Things like this should be written more often. Good job!

  3. I am glad someone is speaking up and raising awareness about STDs among south asians. If more people were to speak up, then maybe one day we will be able to break free of our cultural boundaries. We need more people like Munia Islam in our community.

  4. This article is very informative. There are many people out here like this but dont think to get tested, and before you know it things get worse. STD’s are at an all time high. No mater what you culture is anyone can go through the same things.

  5. This is a exceptional post, but I was wondering how do I suscribe to the RSS feed?

  6. my neighbor got Chlamydia because he likes to go out with prostitutes. This is a very nasty disease.~;,

  7. You certainly deserve a round of applause for your article and more specifically, for addressing a controversial topic. Very high quality material.

  8. Bravo.  Isn’t it fascinating that this culture and america spend so much time pretending that they are ‘not’ having sex or couldn’t possibly get an std..but everyone is having sex.  (Not everyone…..but millions).
    Honestly, the reality is this: if you are having sex you are exposing yourself to an STD….even if you are married and in a one sided monogamous union.

    So, if you have sex (regardless of what context) you have an STD risk.

    And, let’s not even talk about men having sex with men in cultures that force gay or bi men into the closet….and then expect them to be open about their sexuality: it isn’t going to happen…

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