Health officials across the country are expressing concern about the growing number of people with a sexually transmitted disease, as a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated rates of syphilis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea have risen for the fifth year.

According to the CDC's 2018 Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report, there's been a 19 percent increase in cases of chlamydia, a 63 percent increase in gonorrhea, a 71 percent increase in primary and secondary syphilis, and 185 percent increase in congenital syphilis since 2014.

Reversing the trends will require health departments and health care providers to more effectively implement proven prevention methods and develop new tools for care, said Lori Tremmel, National Association of County and City Health Officials CEO.

"For local health department, this means educating providers and the public about the increasing risk of syphilis, including congenital syphilis, and the need for early prenatal care to properly treat fetuses with congenital syphilis," said Tremmel. "But we know these STD crises will not resolve by themselves. We must focus on reducing all barriers to individuals seeking health care, such as poverty, stigma, and lack of health insurance. These barriers increase the rise for contracting an STD and make it more difficult to seek testing and treatment."

In 2018, Oklahoma ranked 19th in rates of reported cases of chlamydia (21,974), 10th in gonorrhea (8,998), ninth in primary and secondary syphilis (531), and 11th in congenital syphilis (12).

STDs can increase the risk of transmitting or receiving HIV, result in long-term abdominal pain, and produce pregnancy complications, including the inability to become pregnant. To prevent the spreading of STDs, the CDC recommends people speak with their partners and health care providers openly, get tested, and work with providers to get treated. According to the CDC, the highest age-specific rates of reported cases of chlamydia in 2018 among females were 15 to 19 years (3,306.8 cases per 100,000) and 20 to 24 years (4,064.6 cases per 100,000). Meanwhile, the rate of chlamydia cases among males 15 to 19 years increased by 3.7 percent from 2017 to 2018.

Area residents can get tested for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV at the Cherokee County Health Department for free. CCHD will also treat for syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia.

"For HIV, we would refer to the Ryan White Clinics through [Oklahoma University] and [Oklahoma State University] throughout the state," said Deidra Killion, coordinating nurse for CCHD. "So Tulsa and Oklahoma City are where those facilities are."

Rates of gonorrhea in adolescents and young adults were among the highest in 2018. The highest rates among females were among those ages 20-24 and 15-19. Among males, the rate was highest among those ages 20-24 and 25-29.

Multiple factors contribute to the increase in STDs, according to the CDC: drug use, poverty, stigma and unstable housing, which can reduce access to STD prevention; decreased condom use among vulnerable groups, including young people and gay and bisexual men; and cuts to STD programs at the state and local level, as more than half of local programs have experienced budget cuts in recent years, resulting in clinic closures, reduced screening, staff loss, and reduced patient follow-up.

Killion said it can be "tricky" to bring sex education to people, such as in public schools.

"Sex and STDs are one of those things we don't talk about much in public," she said. "So I think that's a lot of what limits us in getting education places."

Anyone may walk in to the CCHD and ask for a free "brown bag," which has condoms and information about intercourse and STD testing. Killion also said it's a good idea for anyone who has a new partner, or is considering getting one, to get tested.

"That way we can get everybody treated before there's any spread," she said. "And we do recommend testing every three months if you have a partner change or any kind of event happens that was unprotected."

In a recent Facebook Saturday Forum, the Daily Press asked readers about the increase in STDs, why it's happened and methods for preventing it. The results varied, as some readers believe abstinence-only education for youth is a valid method of prevention, while others think if abstinence-only did work, the rates of pregnancy and STDs wouldn't be as high.

"[Abstinence-only education] works if you believe in the wisdom of that choice," wrote Shannon Wilcox. "I have four children and nine grands who believe in it and have or did practice abstinence. Their choice. At least present abstinence as a choice, along with pros and cons of various choices."

Some pointed to a cultural shift in safe sex practices, asserting that abstinence-only education for young people does not work.

"Premarital sex is now the norm in our society, for better or worse," wrote Bill Hunter. "For our children's sake, we have to adapt to the new culture and not shame them. Our teens have to be smart about how to have sex safely, and robust sexual education is the best way to achieve that … then there's the question of providing the equipment. Free condoms are easy and effective."

Others said the role sex plays in pop culture has also contributed to the rise in STDs. In Krista Noire's response, she said youth are constantly being exposed to sex through various types of media, and doesn't see the problem going away if sex continues to be advertised via television, movies, or video games.

"Can't watch a movie or TV drama without it should it one way or another," said Nofire. "Mix in drinking and partying and what do you get? One-night stands, girls getting pregnant, etc. What majority of shows don't show is the person getting an STD."

In a website poll, Daily Press readers were asked what they attribute to the rise in STDs to. Of the 39 respondents, eight said it is due to a "decline in morality, and failure to emphasize it, at the highest levels."

Twelve said its due to a "lack of education about STDs and how to prevent them." Another 12 said "refusal of sexually active people to use condoms or other preventative measures" was the driving force. One person said it's due to "the increase in other types of crimes," and six people blamed it on "interference from religious communities with their unrealistic expectations for abstinence."

Learn more

For more information on sexually transmitted diseases, visit www.cdc.gov. For more information about treatment or testing at the Cherokee County Health Department, call 918-456-8826 or visit www.ok.gov/health. To see more reader comments, go to www.facebook.com/tdpress and scroll down to the Oct. 19 Saturday Forum.

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