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Healthy State tells the stories you need to know to stay well, with a special focus on Florida.We'll bring you the latest fitness trends, new research on preventing and treating disease, and information about how health policy impacts your pocketbook.We report on health using all the tools at our disposal -- video, audio, photos and text -- to bring these stories to life.Healthy State is a project of WUSF Public Media in Tampa and is heard on public radio stations throughout Florida. It also is available online at wusfnews.org.

The Republican National Convention and Sexually-Transmitted Diseases: What Are The Risks?


Prostitution in the Tampa Bay area is expected to increase during the Republican National Convention. But will that lead to the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases?

We asked that question of a county health official, a high-end escort, and an academic expert. The answer is complicated.

When it comes to heat exhaustion, local health officials are planning to hand out fliers to educate convention-goers. But the Hillsborough County Health Department is not planning anything special to deal with the STD threat.

Carlos Mercado with Health department says, in the recent spike in syphilis in Hillsborough County, prostitutes weren't the cause.

"Prostitution, while there is some, it hasn't been a significant factor that we've been able to identify through the case investigation," Mercado says.

Playing It Safe

"Mary" isn't taking any chances. The high-end escort from Tampa has a plan.

Before she even meets her clients, she has a good idea of who they are.

"I want to talk to these people. I want to know who I'm seeing, why I'm seeing them," she says.

But what a simple screening doesn't reveal is whether they have a sexually transmitted disease -- a risk factor that is not lost on Mary. 

"There is no safe sex, there's safer sex, I mean you can get sick from drinking after someone, let alone kissing them!”

It's a job hazard that has her taking steps to keep herself safe. 

"I get tested. And a lot of my girlfriends do too," she says.

But long before it even gets to that point, she protects herself. 

"Condoms, condoms, condoms, condoms, condoms, condoms, female condoms, male condoms, dental dams, condoms…what else? Condoms," she says.

A Complicated Question

Back to that question -- do political conventions lead to the spread of STDs?

Researcher Scott Cunningham, a professor at Baylor University, says the risk seems to depend on the type of prostitute sought and who is seeking them.

"It would be like saying there is such thing as a car, and you treat the car market as if there is just one thing," he says.

First of all, clients at the RNC may be different than at an event like the Super Bowl.

"That's where the public health question becomes a little bit more complicated,” he says, “if you are bringing in a lot of young men who are drinking a lot to a sports event, I think you have more reason to think they might be transmitters of STDs.”

He says that’s because these men are more likely to contact higher risk prostitutes -- women who may take on more clients and be less likely to use protection.

Through his research, Cunningham has found that the clients at political conventions tend to be older men who are more likely to hire high-end escorts.

These escorts, in turn, may be taking more steps to protect themselves. 

"There's a group of women who are almost paranoid, they take a considerable amount of precaution. They screen clients, they make them jump through a million hoops."

Regardless, Cunningham has found that it's tough to track the spread of STDS after a convention. This is mainly because, the customers go home too soon.

"The problem with STDs is that sometimes the incubation spell sometimes takes a long time,” he says.

“Even for something like gonorrhea or syphilis which will incubate within a couple of weeks, which is great. We were looking at the conventions which lasted four days."

And by then, the RNC will be but a memory for Mary. She sees it as an opportunity to promote good health for convention-goers: mental health.

"They work too much, they're busy trying to tell people what to do, manage people, take responsibility for themselves, and a lot of times they don't even know who they are anymore,” she says.

“I see sexuality as a health subject. Not a moral issue.It's part of loving and connecting as a human being.”

And she says, that's what makes it a health topic.

Previously, we aired a story on the financial expectations of escorts during the RNC and what they're doing to physically and mentally prepare. Here is a link to that story.

Sarah Pusateri is a former multimedia health policy reporter for Health News Florida, a project of WUSF. The Buffalo New York native most recently worked as a health reporter for Healthystate.org, a two year grant-funded project at WUSF. There, she co-produced an Emmy Award winning documentary called Uniform Betrayal: Rape in the Military.
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