An advanced nurse practitioner called my name. She would be the one to prick my finger to test my blood for HIV. She would also suggest I be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia, as she does for every young, sexually active patient.
As I waded through the waiting room full of sniffling students scrolling through iPhones, I remembered that one in four young adults has a sexually transmitted disease. Nobody looked particularly worried.
The new Student Health Service office is pristine, but I couldn’t help but feel like what I wanted to talk about was too grimy for the space. I followed her to a large examining room where I sat on a new chair next to a shiny sink and an immaculate countertop.
I had apathetically made the appointment because I wanted to write a story about the services GW offers to students who’ve had worrisome sexual encounters. But as I sat down to talk about my options, I grew nervous.
SHS does not bill students’ personal insurance plans, so I would have to pay out of pocket. The visit costs $25. A rapid HIV test is free and results are available in 15 minutes. A combined gonorrhea and chlamydia test costs $60, and the results take 48 to 72 hours to become available because a urine sample is sent to a lab.
As a straight woman, I was told I was not at high-risk to contract syphilis. But had I wanted the test, it would’ve cost another $25 at Quest Diagnostics on K Street.
I hesitated to fork over the money for anything other than the visit, but the nurse made a convincing case when she explained the risks of letting infections lie dormant. She said women tend to be asymptomatic when it comes to gonorrhea and chlamydia, and left untreated, the infections can lead to scarring and infertility.
After my visit, a quick search on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website revealed that undiagnosed infections cause 24,000 women to become infertile every year. One-third of reported chlamydia cases occur in people ages 15 to 24, and 55 percent of gonorrhea cases occur in the same age range.
The odds weren’t stacked against me, but they certainly weren’t pretty.
When I mentioned this story to friends — a group of wild over-sharers who ordinarily spare no topic of conversation — they fell silent. We all must have wondered who among us would be the first afflicted.
When I made the appointment, the woman on the phone told me to discuss my options with my physician. I remembered watching a brief “wear a condom” skit at Colonial Inauguration, but I couldn’t remember ever being encouraged to get tested.
The Division of Student Affairs has an online module, MyStudentBody, that aims to improve student wellness. On its website, it says students should “feel free” to browse the resource, which has information about sexual health. The Colonial Health Center holds walk-in tests for HIV on Wednesday afternoons, and the tests are always free thanks to a partnership with the D.C. Department of Health.
People talk about sex, but nobody talks about its potentially infectious repercussions. High school health classes scared me into believing STIs were a nasty, wart-ridden result of immorality. We’re sold the idea that red bumps and oozing are reserved for dirty, irresponsible people.
But most sexually active people, even those who have had sex with only one person, will contract human papillomavirus, which most often causes warts or benign tumors. Young people will contract half of all new infections, which means contracting an STI is not social deviance. It’s perfectly normal.
What’s more disturbing than warts themselves is never being prescribed medication because sex partners of the past, present and future could never know what they are passing around. Condoms may be an effective means of prevention, but many infections are transmitted orally.
The CDC emphasizes the importance of annual screenings, but for students who do not have a parent to call or a credit card to charge when unforeseen, potentially embarrassing expenses come up, the options are bleak.
The cost of tests at SHS are not unusual. STD Express on K Street charges $250 to screen for the most common infections. At the nearest Planned Parenthood, prices vary: A patient with STI symptoms could be charged $150 for an office visit, and a single HPV vaccine injection could cost $285.
The CDC has not officially updated STI treatment recommendations since 2010. The draft of new guidelines does not list specific prices and only mentions that cost-effectiveness of tests should be considered in determining the best course for treatment.
By the time I paid for the visit and was heading out the door, I was convinced being screened was the responsible thing to do. But then I thought, if I hadn’t been writing this, would I have even come here?
I, unfortunately, would have probably used the $85 on a few nights out.