Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have a negative connotation and impact on health-seeking behaviour.
This was one of the main findings of four fourth-year medical students at the University of Cape Town. The team conducted the study with 105 Mitchell’s Plain residents in the Station Plaza between the ages of 18 and 40.
Danielle Chantrain from Rondebosch East said the Mitchell’s Plain Health Committee was concerned about the increasing number of people who have STIs in Mitchell’s Plain.
She said the aim of this study was to find out how much people know about STIs and what their beliefs are about the disease. “We wanted to find out which terms are commonly used when referring to STIs and how these terms may have an impact on health-seeking behaviour,” she said.
Danielle said the team initially planned to go door-to-door to get their sample, but then realised that the people who were at home did not fulfil their inclusion criteria.
“The Mitchell’s Plain Health Committee recommended the Mitchell’s Plain Station Plaza and we did the sample there. We requested the help of anyone who was willing to participate and ensured confidentiality by separating the people participating from everyone else. The questionnaire was self-administered and participants answered it on their own,” she said.
Danielle added that STIs are a major contributor to the burden of disease in South Africa and pose one of the greatest threats and challenges to public health in South Africa.
“This is true also for the Western Cape where prevalence rates of STIs are equally as high. In an effort to understand why a significant amount of STIs remain untreated, we must understand health-seeking behaviours in relation to STIs.
“Knowledge and beliefs surrounding STIs greatly impact people’s sexual practices and health-seeking behaviour. In the community we sampled, most people knew of STIs and knew that there are other STIs beside HIV.
“However, it was clear that there is a lack of knowledge surrounding causes of STIs. Additionally, with regards to the symptoms of STIs, many individuals seemed to not know that STIs can be asymptomatic,” she said.
The team established that there were a number of misconceptions in the community which need to be addressed. Danielle said the barriers to safe sex practices were not attributable to a lack of resources but rather to people’s practices.
“Also, the commonly used STI terminology in the community had negative connotations and thus a negative impact on health-seeking behaviour. This calls for an effort to shift or alter people’s perceptions and beliefs,” she said.
Unathi Beni from Mowbray said the gaps in STI knowledge in the sample community emphasise the need for targeted and effective health promotion strategies which include knowledge on causes and symptoms of STIs as well as to address STI misconceptions.
Speaking about her experience, she said she realised the importance of education in health.
“The study was an eye-opener for me, it made me realise the importance of education in health promotion. The people in Mitchell’s Plain were really friendly, most of them willingly participated in our study and were eager to learn. If it wasn’t for them, our study would not have been successful,” she said.
Stacey Malan from Blouberg said working on the project she realised the importance of knowing about diseases and the effect this has on health, particularly regarding preventable illnesses such as STIs.
“The Mitchell’s Plain community was overwhelmingly helpful and welcoming, and as such we were able to gather all the information we needed for our study,” she said.
Gabisile Kgwedi from Mowbray said conducting the study in Mitchell’s Plain proved enlightening and thought-provoking.
“Not only were we able to collect the data we required for the study, but we were also given the opportunity to interact with the people of Mitchell’s Plain. These interactions showed me that people were welcoming, friendly and willing to participate.
“There also seemed to be a general sense of wanting to make the community a better place. It was an enjoyable experience and I appreciate the assistance of the community,” she said.