‘She Looked Clean’

| September 03, 2002

Truckers intent on being sexually active with strangers on the road should practice extreme caution. While there are treatments for every STD, most are limited in effectiveness. Some of the diseases cannot be cured. Some can be fatal.


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When it comes to sexually transmitted diseases, nurse Sharon Mitchell has seen and heard it all at the truck stop clinic where she works in South Jessup, Md. “Mostly the patients say they thought they were a good judge of character,” says Mitchell, also known on the Internet community www.trucknet.com as Nurse Red. “Or that it was a one-time encounter, and they fell for a sob story the prostitute told.”

Many of her patients – truckers and prostitutes – are vaguely aware of STD symptoms, but don’t think it could happen to them. “I tell my patients that they are playing sexual Russian roulette. You are having sex with all the sexual partners of your partner and all their partners.”

Low awareness of the ease of contamination isn’t uncommon, say those who work with this area of public health. They recommend truckers intent on being sexually active with strangers on the road practice extreme caution. While there are treatments for every STD, most are limited in effectiveness. Some of the diseases cannot be cured. Some can be fatal.

One of the potentially deadly diseases is syphilis. “What’s driving an epidemic?” in the March 1999 American Journal of Public Health looked at a syphilis outbreak in which truckers apparently played a role. The results showed that the syphilis rates among people living along I-95 in rural North Carolina from 1985 to 1994 greatly exceeded rates in non I-95 counties.

Robertson County, N.C. – one of the counties along I-95 – has the highest syphilis rate in the country, says Dr. Peter Leone, medical director for the Wake County STD Clinic and medical director of the state’s HIV Prevention and Control Branch. “Commercial sex workers play a significant role in the disease access and transmission, especially in poverty-stricken rural areas,” he says. “Prostitutes who are too poor to have their own car catch rides with truckers from one truck stop to another,” Leone says. Strip joints next to some truck stops also serve as meeting places.

When truckers do notice a possible STD symptom, getting diagnosed and treated is difficult because there are virtually no truck stop medical clinics. A small chain of them, Artel Medical Centers, closed two years ago. Mitchell’s clinic is the only one operated by American Business Medical Services.

“I’m worried about truckers on the road who don’t complete their treatments or need to be seen again,” Mitchell says. In some cases, truckers discontinue treatment when symptoms disappear, thinking they are healed, but the disease continues to thrive. “Syphilis and gonorrhea both require follow-up care, and Hepatitis B can be a long-term medical condition,” she says.

Another problem for many truckers is their ignorance of STD symptoms. The most common excuse heard by health care workers after diagnosing an STD – “I thought she looked clean” – is also the most dangerous one, Leone says, because 70 percent to 80 percent of infected sex workers show no current symptoms. “You have to insist they be tested, and you should have yourself tested if you have engaged in unprotected sexual activity,” he says.

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