Prophylactics. When most of us hear this word, we think of condoms and the preventative protection they provide against sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But prophylactics are defined as anything that prevent the spread of an infectious disease—a vaccination for measles, preventative malaria medication, or, in an extreme case, the head-to-toe protective coverings worn by health care workers who are working to battle the unfolding Ebola virus epidemic.
Estimates from the World Health Organization as of October 10, 2014 place the number of people affected by Ebola at 8,376 cases and 4,024 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The epidemic is not just confined to these three countries; an unrelated outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has 71 Ebola cases and 43 deaths. Initial cases or localized transmission of Ebola are also being monitored in Nigeria (20 cases, 8 deaths), Senegal (1 case), the United States (1 case), and Spain (1 case).
The horror of Ebola—and the need to protect ourselves from it—has captured the popular imagination of United States citizens. Public health officials have tried to put to rest fears that Ebola could spread in the U.S. as it has in Africa, while underscoring the need for global action to address the epidemic. Faced with the threat, imagined or real, of a death as miserable and frightening as that caused by Ebola is enough to make people spring into action to prevent it.
Conversely, STIs don’t register on the national horizon very often—we’re accustomed to the idea of them and largely desensitized to their impact. In spite of the availability of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) that has drastically reduced mortality, 15,529 people with an HIV diagnosis died in 2010 in the United States. Research shows that pregnant women with syphilis are 52 percent more likely to experience adverse pregnancy outcomes, including stillbirths and neonatal deaths, than women without syphilis. The mortality effects of these diseases are just as real as that of Ebola, and are much closer to home.
As much as there is universal support for prophylactics to prevent the spread of Ebola, access to prophylactics needed to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, syphilis, and other STIs are limited by policies such as widespread abstinence-only sexual education, the inaccessibility of condoms in prisons, and the illegality of expedited partner therapy. The bottom line is that prophylactics, accompanied by appropriate behavior change, save lives. Whether we are talking about Ebola in west Africa or syphilis in the United States, supporting public policies and health initiatives that increase the supply of and access to prophylactics is the smart thing to do.
About the Author:
Calley Mersmann is a Planning and Policy Associate at The Center for Community Solutions, where she assists with research and analysis on demographic trends and health and human services needs.