Sexual Assault and STDs
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The recommendations in this report are limited to the identification, prophylaxis, and treatment of STDs and conditions commonly identified in the management of such infections. The documentation of findings, collection of nonmicrobiologic specimens for forensic purposes, and management of potential pregnancy or physical and psychological trauma are beyond the scope of this report.
Examinations of survivors of sexual assault should be conducted by an experienced clinician in a way that minimizes further trauma to the survivor. The decision to obtain genital or other specimens for STD diagnosis should be made on an individual basis. Care systems for survivors should be designed to ensure continuity (including timely review of test results), support adherence, and monitor for adverse reactions to any therapeutic or prophylactic regimens prescribed at initial examination. Laws in all 50 states strictly limit the evidentiary use of a survivor’s previous sexual history, including evidence of previously acquired STDs, as part of an effort to undermine the credibility of the survivor’s testimony. Evidentiary privilege against revealing any aspect of the examination or treatment also is enforced in most states. Although it rarely occurs, STD diagnoses might later be accessed, and the survivor and clinician might opt to defer testing for this reason. While collection of specimens at initial examination for laboratory STD diagnosis gives the survivor and clinician the option to defer empiric prophylactic antimicrobial treatment, compliance with follow up visits is traditionally poor (477,478). Among sexually active adults, the identification of an STD might represent an infection acquired prior to the assault, and therefore might be more important for the psychological and medical management of the patient than for legal purposes.
Trichomoniasis, BV, gonorrhea, and chlamydial infection are the most frequently diagnosed infections among women who have been sexually assaulted. Such conditions are relatively prevalent, and the presence after an assault does not necessarily imply acquisition during the assault. However, a postassault examination presents an important opportunity to identify or prevent STDs. Chlamydial and gonococcal infections in women are of particular concern because of the possibility of ascending infection. In addition, HBV infection can be prevented by postexposure administration of hepatitis B vaccine. Reproductive-aged female survivors should be evaluated for pregnancy, if appropriate.
Evaluating Adults and Adolescents for Sexually Transmitted Diseases
An initial examination might include the following procedures:
- NAATs for C. trachomatis and N. gonorrhoeae. These tests are preferred for the diagnostic evaluation of sexual assault victims, regardless of the sites of penetration or attempted penetration (197).
- Wet mount and culture or point-of-care testing of a vaginal-swab specimen for T. vaginalis infection. The wet mount also should be examined for evidence of BV and candidiasis, especially if vaginal discharge, malodor, or itching is evident.
- A serum sample for immediate evaluation for HIV infection, hepatitis B, and syphilis. Decisions to perform these tests should be made on an individual basis.
After the initial postassault examination, follow-up examinations provide an opportunity to 1) detect new infections acquired during or after the assault; 2) complete hepatitis B vaccination, if indicated; 3) complete counseling and treatment for other STDs; and 4) monitor side effects and adherence to postexposure prophylactic medication, if prescribed.
Examination for STDs can be repeated within 1–2 weeks of the assault. Because infectious agents acquired through assault might not have produced sufficient concentrations of organisms to result in positive test results at the initial examination, testing can be repeated during the follow-up visit, unless prophylactic treatment was provided. If treatment was provided, testing should be conducted only if the survivor reports having symptoms. If treatment was not provided, follow-up examination should be conducted within 1 week to ensure that results of positive tests can be discussed promptly with the survivor and that treatment is provided. Serologic tests for syphilis and HIV infection can be repeated 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months after the assault if initial test results were negative and infection in the assailant could not be ruled out (see Sexual Assault and STDs, Risk for Acquiring HIV Infection).
Compliance with follow-up visits is poor among survivors of sexual assault (477,478). As a result, routine preventive therapy after a sexual assault should be encouraged. The following prophylactic regimen is suggested as preventive therapy:
- Postexposure hepatitis B vaccination, without HBIG. This vaccine should be administered to sexual assault survivors at the time of the initial examination if they have not been previously vaccinated. Follow-up doses of vaccine should be administered 1–2 and 4–6 months after the first dose.
- An empiric antimicrobial regimen for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomonas.
- Emergency contraception. (This measure is necessary only when the assault could result in pregnancy in the survivor.)
Ceftriaxone 250 mg IM in a single dose
Cefixime 400 mg orally in a single dose
Metronidazole 2 g orally in a single dose
Azithromycin 1 g orally in a single dose OR Doxycycline 100 mg orally twice a day for 7 days
For those requiring alternative treatments, refer to the specific sections in this report relevant to the specific agent. The efficacy of these regimens in preventing infections after sexual assault has not been evaluated. Clinicians should counsel patients regarding the possible benefits and toxicities associated with these treatment regimens; gastrointestinal side effects can occur with this combination.
Other Management Considerations
At the initial examination and, if indicated, at follow-up examinations, patients should be counseled regarding 1) symptoms of STDs and the need for immediate examination if symptoms occur and 2) abstinence from sexual intercourse until STD prophylactic treatment is completed.
Risk for Acquiring HIV Infection
HIV seroconversion has occurred in persons whose only known risk factor was sexual assault or sexual abuse, but the frequency of this occurrence is probably low. In consensual sex, the risk for HIV transmission from vaginal intercourse is 0.1%–0.2% and for receptive rectal intercourse, 0.5%–3% (479). The risk for HIV transmission from oral sex is substantially lower. Specific circumstances of an assault (e.g., bleeding, which often accompanies trauma) might increase risk for HIV transmission in cases involving vaginal, anal, or oral penetration.
Site of exposure to ejaculate, viral load in ejaculate, and the presence of an STD or genital lesions in the assailant or survivor also might increase the risk for HIV.
Children might be at higher risk for transmission, because the sexual abuse of children is frequently associated with multiple episodes of assault and might result in mucosal trauma (see Sexual Assault or Abuse of Children ).
Postexposure therapy with zidovudine was associated with a reduced risk for acquiring HIV in a study of health-care workers who had percutaneous exposures to HIV-infected blood (480). On the basis of these results and the results of animal studies, PEP has been recommended for health-care workers who have occupational exposures to HIV (446). These findings have been extrapolated to other types of HIV exposure, including sexual assault (78). If HIV exposure has occurred, initiation of PEP as soon as possible after the exposure likely increases benefit. Although a definitive statement of benefit cannot be made regarding PEP after sexual assault, the possibility of HIV exposure from the assault should be assessed at the time of the postassault examination. The possible benefit of PEP in preventing HIV infection also should be discussed with the assault survivor if the assault poses a risk for HIV exposure.
Several factors impact the medical recommendation for PEP and affect the assault survivor’s acceptance of that recommendation, including 1) the likelihood of the assailant having HIV, 2) any exposure characteristics that might increase the risk for HIV transmission, 3) the time elapsed after the event, and 4) the potential benefits and risks associated with the PEP (78). Determination of the assailant’s HIV status at the time of the assault examination usually in not possible. Therefore, the health-care provider should assess any available information concerning 1) characteristics and HIV risk behaviors of the assailant(s) (e.g., a man who has sex with other men and persons who use injection drugs or crack cocaine), 2) local epidemiology of HIV/AIDS, and 3) exposure characteristics of the assault. When an assailant’s HIV status is unknown, factors that should be considered in determining whether an increased risk for HIV transmission exists include 1) whether vaginal or anal penetration occurred; 2) whether ejaculation occurred on mucous membranes; 3) whether multiple assailants were involved; 4) whether mucosal lesions are present in the assailant or survivor; and 5) any other characteristics of the assault, survivor, or assailant that might increase risk for HIV transmission.
If PEP is offered, the following information should be discussed with the patient: 1) the unproven benefit and known toxicities of antiretrovirals; 2) the importance of close follow-up; 3) the benefit of adherence to recommended dosing; and 4) the necessity of early initiation of PEP to optimize potential benefits (i.e., as soon as possible after and up to 72 hours after the assault). Providers should emphasize that PEP appears to be well-tolerated in both adults and children and that severe adverse effects are rare (481-483). Clinical management of the survivor should be implemented according to the following guidelines (78). Specialist consultation on PEP regimens is recommended if HIV exposure during the assault was possible and if PEP is being considered. The sooner PEP is initiated after the exposure, the higher the likelihood that it will prevent HIV transmission if HIV exposure occurred; however, distress after an assault also might prevent the survivor from accurately weighing exposure risks and benefits of PEP and from making an informed decision to start such therapy. If use of PEP is judged to be warranted, the survivor should be offered a 3–5-day supply of PEP, and a follow-up visit should be scheduled several days later to allow for additional counseling.
Recommendations for Postexposure Assessment of Adolescent and Adult Survivors Within 72 Hours of Sexual Assault§§
- Assess risk for HIV infection in the assailant.
- Evaluate characteristics of the assault event that might increase risk for HIV transmission.
- Consult with a specialist in HIV treatment, if PEP is being considered.
- If the survivor appears to be at risk for HIV transmission from the assault, discuss antiretroviral prophylaxis, including toxicity and lack of proven benefit.
- If the survivor chooses to start antiretroviral PEP (78), provide enough medication to last until the next return visit; reevaluate the survivor 3–7 days after initial assessment and assess tolerance of medications.
- If PEP is started, perform CBC and serum chemistry at baseline (initiation of PEP should not be delayed, pending
- Perform HIV antibody test at original assessment; repeat at 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months.
Recommendations in this report are limited to the identification and treatment of STDs. Management of the psychosocial aspects of the sexual assault or abuse of children is beyond the scope of these recommendations.
The identification of sexually transmissible agents in children beyond the neonatal period suggests sexual abuse. The significance of the identification of a sexually transmitted agent in such children as evidence of possible child sexual abuse varies by pathogen. Postnatally acquired gonorrhea; syphilis; and nontransfusion, nonperinatally acquired HIV are usually diagnostic of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse should be suspected when genital herpes is diagnosed. The investigation of sexual abuse among children who have an infection that could have been transmitted sexually should be conducted in compliance with recommendations by clinicians who have experience and training in all elements of the evaluation of child abuse, neglect, and assault. The social significance of an infection that might have been acquired sexually and the recommended action regarding reporting of suspected child sexual abuse varies by the specific organism, as do the recommendations regarding reporting of suspected child sexual abuse (Table 6). In all cases in which an STD has been diagnosed in a child, efforts should be made to detect evidence of sexual abuse, including conducting diagnostic testing for other commonly occurring STDs (484-486).
The general rule that sexually transmissible infections beyond the neonatal period are evidence of sexual abuse has exceptions. For example, rectal or genital infection with C. trachomatis among young children might be the result of perinatally acquired infection and has, in some cases, persisted for as long as 2–3 years. Genital warts have been diagnosed in children who have been sexually abused, but also in children who have no other evidence of sexual abuse (487,488). BV has been diagnosed in children who have been abused, but its presence alone does not prove sexual abuse. In addition, most HBV infections in children result from household exposure to persons who have chronic HBV infection.
Table 6: Implications of commonly encountered sexually transmitted (ST) or sexually associated (SA) infections for diagnosis and reporting of sexual abuse among infants and pre-pubertal children
|ST/SA confirmed||Evidence for sexual abuse||Suggested action|
|Human immunodeficiency virus§||Diagnostic||Report†|
|Trichomonas vaginalis||Highly suspicious||Report†|
|Condylomata acuminata (anogenital warts)*||Suspicious||Report†|
|Bacterial vaginosis||Inconclusive||Medical follow-up|
Source: Adapted from Kellogg N, American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. The evaluation of child abuse in children. Pediatrics 2005;116(2):506–12.
* If not likely to be perinatally acquired and rare nonsexual, vertical transmission is excluded.
† Reports should be made to the agency in the community mandated to receive reports of suspected child abuse or neglect.
§ If not likely to be acquired perinatally or through transfusion.
¶ Unless there is a clear history of autoinoculation.
The possibility of sexual abuse should be strongly considered if no conclusive explanation for nonsexual transmission of an STD can be identified.
All U.S. states and territories have laws that require the reporting of child abuse. Although the exact requirements differ by state, if a health-care provider has reasonable cause to suspect child abuse, a report must be made. Health-care providers should contact their state or local child-protection service agency regarding child-abuse reporting requirements in their states.
Evaluating Children for Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Examinations of children for sexual assault or abuse should be conducted in a manner designed to minimize pain and trauma to the child. Collection of vaginal specimens in prepubertal children can be very uncomfortable and should be performed by an experienced clinician to avoid psychological and physical trauma to the child. The decision to obtain genital or other specimens from a child to conduct an STD evaluation must be made on an individual basis. The following situations place children at high-risk for STDs and constitute a strong indication for testing.
- The child has or has had symptoms or signs of an STD or of an infection that can be sexually transmitted, even in the absence of suspicion of sexual abuse. Among the signs that are associated with a confirmed STD diagnosis are vaginal discharge or pain, genital itching or odor, urinary symptoms, and genital ulcers or lesions.
- A suspected assailant is known to have an STD or to be at high risk for STDs (e.g., has multiple sex partners or a history of STDs).
- A sibling or another child or adult in the household or child’s immediate environment has an STD.
- The patient or parent requests testing.
- Evidence of genital, oral, or anal penetration or ejaculation is present.
If a child has symptoms, signs, or evidence of an infection that might be sexually transmitted, the child should be tested for other common STDs before the initiation of any treatment that could interfere with the diagnosis of those other STDs. Because of the legal and psychosocial consequences of a false-positive diagnosis, only tests with high specificities should be used. The potential benefit to the child of a reliable diagnosis of an STD justifies deferring presumptive treatment until specimens for highly specific tests are obtained by providers with experience in the evaluation of sexually abused and assaulted children.
The scheduling of an examination should depend on the history of assault or abuse. If the initial exposure was recent, the infectious agents acquired through the exposure might not have produced sufficient concentrations of organisms to result in positive test results. A follow-up visit approximately 2 weeks after the most recent sexual exposure can include a repeat physical examination and collection of additional specimens. To allow sufficient time for antibodies to develop, another follow-up visit approximately 12 weeks after the most recent sexual exposure might be necessary to collect sera. A single examination might be sufficient if the child was abused for an extended period and if a substantial amount of time elapsed between the last suspected episode of abuse and the medical evaluation.
The following recommendations for scheduling examinations serve as a general guide. The exact timing and nature of follow-up examinations should be determined on an individual basis and should be performed to minimize the possibility for psychological trauma and social stigma. Compliance with follow-up appointments might be improved when law enforcement personnel or child protective services are involved.
Initial and 2-Week Follow-Up Examinations
During the initial examination and 2-week follow-up examination (if indicated), the following should be performed.
- Visual inspection of the genital, perianal, and oral areas for genital discharge, odor, bleeding, irritation, warts, and ulcerative lesions. The clinical manifestations of some STDs are different in children than in adults. For example, typical vesicular lesions might not be present in the presence of HSV infection. Because this infection can be indicative of sexual abuse, specimens should be obtained from all vesicular or ulcerative genital or perianal lesions compatible with genital herpes and then sent for viral culture.
- Specimen collection for N. gonorrhoeae culture from the pharynx and anus in boys and girls, the vagina in girls, and the urethra in boys. Cervical specimens are not recommended for prepubertal girls. For boys with a urethral discharge, a meatal specimen discharge is an adequate substitute for an intraurethral swab specimen. Because of the legal implications of a diagnosis of N. gonorrhoeae infection in a child, if culture for the isolation of N. gonorrhoeae is done, only standard culture procedures should be performed. Gram stains are inadequate to evaluate prepubertal children for gonorrhea and should not be used to diagnose or exclude gonorrhea. Specimens from the vagina, urethra, pharynx, or rectum should be streaked onto selective media for isolation of N. gonorrhoeae, and all presumptive isolates of N. gonorrhoeae should be identified definitively by at least two tests that involve different principles (e.g., biochemical, enzyme substrate, or serologic). Isolates should be preserved to enable additional or repeated testing.
- Cultures for C. trachomatis from specimens collected from the anus in both boys and girls and from the vagina in girls. The likelihood of recovering C. trachomatis from the urethra of prepubertal boys is too low to justify the trauma involved in obtaining an intraurethral specimen.
However, a meatal specimen should be obtained if urethral discharge is present. Pharyngeal specimens for C. trachomatis are not recommended for children of either sex because the yield is low, perinatally acquired infection might persist beyond infancy, and culture systems in some laboratories do not distinguish between C. trachomatis and C. pneumoniae. Only standard culture systems for the isolation of C. trachomatis should be used. The isolation of C. trachomatis should be confirmed by microscopic identification of inclusions by staining with fluorescein-conjugated monoclonal antibody specific for C. trachomatis; EIAs are not acceptable confirmatory methods. Isolates should be preserved. Nonculture tests for chlamydia (e.g., nonamplified probes, EIAs, and DFA) are not sufficiently specific for use in circumstances involving possible child abuse or assault. NAATs can be used for detection of C. trachomatis in vaginal specimens or urine from girls. All specimens should be retained for additional testing if necessary. No data are available regarding the use of NAATs in boys or for extragenital specimens (e.g., those obtained from the rectum) in boys and girls. Culture remains the preferred method for extragenital sites.
- Culture and wet mount of a vaginal swab specimen for T. vaginalis infection and BV.
- Collection of serum samples to be evaluated immediately, preserved for subsequent analysis, and used as a baseline for comparison with follow-up serologic tests. Sera should be tested immediately for antibodies to sexually transmitted agents. Agents for which suitable tests are available include T. pallidum, HIV, and HBV. Decisions regarding the agents for which to perform serologic tests should be made on a case-by-case basis.
Data on use of NAATs for detection of N. gonorrhoeae in children are limited, and performance is test dependent (197,486). Consultation with an expert is necessary before using NAATs in this context to minimize the possibility of cross-reaction with nongonococcal Neisseria species and other commensals (e.g., N. meningitidis, N. sicca, N. lactamica, N. cinerea, and Moraxella catarrhalis). NAATs can be used as an alternative to culture with vaginal specimens or urine from girls, whereas culture remains the preferred method for urethral specimens or urine from boys and for extragenital specimens (pharynx and rectum) from all children. All positive specimens should be retained for additional testing.
HIV infection has been reported in children whose only known risk factor was sexual abuse. Serologic testing for HIV infection should be considered for abused children. The decision to test for HIV infection should be made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the likelihood of infection among assailant(s). Although data are insufficient concerning the efficacy and safety of PEP among both children and adults, treatment is well tolerated by infants and children (with and without HIV infection), and children have a minimal risk for serious adverse reactions because of the short period recommended for prohylaxis. (78,138). In considering whether to offer antiretroviral PEP, health-care providers should consider whether the child can be treated soon after the sexual exposure (i.e., within 72 hours), the likelihood that the assailant is infected with HIV, and the likelihood of high compliance with the prophylactic regimen. The potential benefit of treating a sexually abused child should be weighed against the risk for adverse reactions. If antiretroviral PEP is being considered, a provider specializing in evaluating or treating HIV-infected children should be consulted.
Recommendations for HIV-Related Postexposure Assessment of Children within 72 Hours of Sexual Assault
- Review HIV/AIDS local epidemiology and assess risk for HIV infection in the assailant.
- Evaluate circumstances of assault that might affect risk for HIV transmission.
- Consult with a specialist in treating HIV-infected children if PEP is considered.
- If the child appears to be at risk for HIV transmission from the assault, discuss PEP with the caregiver(s), including its toxicity and unknown efficacy.
- If caregivers choose for the child to receive antiretroviral PEP (78,142,489), provide enough medication to last until the return visit at 3–7 days after the initial assessment, at which time the child should be reevaluated and tolerance of medication assessed; dosages should not exceed those for adults.
- Perform HIV antibody test at original assessment, 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months.
Follow-Up Examination After Assault
In circumstances in which transmission of syphilis, HIV, or hepatitis B is a concern but baseline tests are negative, an examination approximately 6 weeks, 3 months, and 6 months after the last suspected sexual exposure is recommended to allow time for antibodies to infectious agents to develop. In addition, results of HBsAg testing must be interpreted carefully, because HBV can be transmitted nonsexually. Decisions regarding which tests should be performed must be made on an individual basis.
The risk of a child acquiring an STD as a result of sexual abuse or assault has not been well studied. Presumptive treatment for children who have been sexually assaulted or abused is not recommended because 1) the incidence of most STDs in children is low after abuse/assault, 2) prepubertal girls appear to be at lower risk for ascending infection than adolescent or adult women, and 3) regular follow-up of children usually can be ensured. However, some children or their parent(s) or guardian(s) might be concerned about the possibility of infection with an STD, even if the risk is perceived to be low by the health-care provider. Such concerns might be an appropriate indication for presumptive treatment in some settings and might be considered after all specimens for diagnostic tests relevant to the investigation have been collected.
- Page last reviewed: January 28, 2011 (archived document)
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