Sometime last week the Ministry of Health issued a release through the Barbados Government Information Service which, for the most part, flew a long way beneath the radar.
Barbados TODAY reported the story under the headline: Government reports dramatic rise in syphilis among pregnant women.
It said the number of cases rose from an average of two a year through to 2015, but in 2016 there were 17 cases, and the country was on course to record a similar rate for last year.
The ministry did not say what was responsible for this sudden and steep rise, but it expressed concern at the “abnormally high rate of syphilis in pregnant women and, by extension, an increase in the number of babies born at risk for congenital syphilis”.
It also quoted Dr Anton Best, the senior medical officer of health with responsibility for the HIV/STI programme, as saying the previous national outbreak was mainly seen in men.
Seventeen cases may not seem a lot but Barbadians ought to be concerned about a rise that is eight-and-a-half fold. We are not about to cast stones, nor will we even consider apportioning any form of blame. But from the evidence, it is fair to conclude that pregnant women – possibly because they are pregnant – are engaging in unprotected sex, and men, possibly because the women are pregnant, are doing the same.
This suggests that the sexual health message is going, or has gone, awry and is no longer appealing. It is time therefore, for our health service providers and messaging experts to evaluate the message and the medium, and to make sexual health services relevant and easily accessible to all.
The release did not state the age range of those who have contracted the chronic bacterial disease, but we do hope the Ministry of Health has this information. For, how else will they determine the message or the medium?
There is also the threat of other sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, unless there is an overhaul of human behaviour. For, while we reiterate that we are not about throwing blame and hope it sticks, personal responsibility and common sense must prevail.
We are not suggesting that the state must take step in and legislate or regulate choice. However, health care providers have a responsibility to educate the population about sexual health, with the appropriate message for different target groups.
And in determining the message, it is important to acknowledge that sexual health is not just about health, not just about syphilis or HIV, it’s about sex as well, as controversial as it may be.
Let’s consider sex education in schools, for example. Because we are by and large priggish prudes, the very thought of it is revolting to many of us. But, isn’t it better to give our daughters the information and sexual health services that they need than to pretend they are not sexually active, only to discover when it is too late that they are pregnant, or have contracted an STI?
Why do our teenage boys have to turn to pornography as their source of information – actually, the source of misinformation – on sex? How do we expect the young men to have a proper sense of sexual health, or for the outcome to be positive when they source of information from pornography? Wouldn’t it better to get it through sexual education at school?
News of the dramatic rise in syphilis may be shocking, and the risks of congenital syphilis to the unborn – disabling and often life-threatening infections including premature birth, low birth weight, birth defects, blindness and hearing loss – is troubling.
However, equally troubling is our unwillingness to face the controversial aspects of sexual life.
We can choose to be prigs, but we cannot deny that sex is a social and personal activity, which we cannot prevent. Let’s therefore make wise and prudent choices, and let’s ensure that those who have sex do so safely.