Letter to the Editor
To the Editor:
In discussing this question with other public health students, there was general agreement that just as the “venereal disease,” or VD, term has been replaced by the term “sexually transmitted disease,” which eventually became recognized by the general public as sexually transmitted disease (STD), the current STD term can be replaced by the term sexually transmitted infection (STI). The question is whether there is a good practical public health purpose for using the word “infection” instead of “disease.” I do see an advantage in introducing the new term: it provides an opportunity to emphasize the largely asymptomatic nature of STIs, which contributes to the persistence of these in many populations. One perception shared by several students was that although the term “disease” invokes the idea of symptoms, the term “infection” implies merely that a person carries a pathogenic organism, which naturally raises the question of what the implications of such an infection may be. Students generally agreed that the term “infection” is technically more accurate.1
Making this distinction and popularizing the STI term may help focus discussions on the asymptomatic nature of these infections and raise awareness of the need for people in high-risk groups to get screened for them, despite the absence of symptomatic disease, thus serving the purpose of educating the public about an important public health issue. A change in terminology use by public health professionals is likely to carryover to educational settings, such as high-school biology and health classes, and community health classes, where many people are first introduced to the concept of a STI. As a high-school biology teacher, I can testify to students' curiosity about the topic and their ability to understand subtle distinctions; the words we use to describe biological phenomena can significantly affect people's perception of issues, how relevant they are, and what questions get raised during classroom discussions.
Although the term STD has the advantage of being currently understood by the general public, popularizing the STI term may take some time until people get used to it, as was the case with the previous change in terminology. This, however, should not stop us from improving on the current terminology because this may help improve public understanding of the issue and lead to increased testing and treatment of STIs.
Monica Porto Carreiro Nordstrom, BS, MAT
University of Illinois at Chicago Lincolnshire, IL
1. Handsfield HH. Sexually transmitted diseases, infections, and disorders: What's in a name? Sex Trans Dis 2015; 42: 169.