Chicago’s Austin community residents can get tested at no cost for sexually transmitted infections (STI) and HIV until the end of this month. This is part of Loretto Hospital’s initiative to increase awareness of preventing and treating sexually transmitted diseases during STD Awareness Month. 

According to the Chicago Department of Public Health, in 2020 Chicago reached the lowest level of new HIV diagnoses since 1987 with just 627 cases. More than half of these diagnoses, 55%, affected non-Hispanic Black Chicagoans. Non-Hispanic Black Chicagoans also accounted for more than half of the new diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. 

Testing is an important step to reduce the spread of STIs and receiving medical treatment that can prevent complications and chronic diseases in the future, said Dr. Carlos Zambrano, chief medical officer for Loretto Hospital. “Access to STI education, prevention and care is an essential resource that supports comprehensive community wellness.”

Because not all sexually transmitted infections cause symptoms, individuals may not know they have them and fail to receive early treatment. For example, Zambrano said if untreated for many years, syphilis can cause heart disease, dementia and memory loss. He recently saw a patient get tested and receive treatment that prevented health issues.

People may be HIV positive without knowing it or presenting signs of disease. Over time, HIV can affect the immune system and increase the risk of severe infectious diseases and lymphoma, which is why early treatment is so important. 

“The common misconception is that treatment causes significant side effects,” Zambrano said, adding it is critical that patients consult their health care providers to determine the best treatment options for them. “All medications have side effects, but the newer HIV and STI medications are safe to use.” 

Zambrano said there are many options and combinations of medications that can be prescribed by medical professionals, who take into account each patient’s health and other medications to determine the best line of treatment for them and prevent counter interactions between medications. 

Besides treatment and testing, it is important for individuals, particularly youth, to learn about preventative methods that decrease the risk of getting HIV or STIs. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of all new infections nationwide occur among youth aged 15-25. 

Other risk factors that increase exposure to STIs include people who have multiple sexual partners, people who do not use condoms, sex workers, people who use drugs and people who have been at correctional facilities and juvenile detention centers. 

Beyond testing Loretto Hospital offers patients treatment options for HIV and STIs. To access free STI screening and HIV testing services, patients can walk in or make an appointment by contacting the outpatient center at 833-TLH-LOVE.