POCATELLO – Health experts say they are alarmed by a significant increase in reports of sexually transmitted diseases both throughout the state and nationally.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that nearly 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were diagnosed in the United States in 2017 — which surpassed the previous record set in 2016 by more than 200,000 cases. And in Idaho in 2017, there were 6,577 reported cases of STDs, including HIV, up from 6,266 reported cases in 2016.
“Overall, we are having record increases of STDs in the state that we haven’t seen in the past,” said Kimberly Matulonis-Edgar, the HIV, STD and hepatitis prevention program coordinator for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “On both a state and national level, we are all struggling to understand where this increase is coming from.”
The CDC analysis of STD cases reported for 2013 and preliminary data for 2017 shows steep, sustained increases, with rates showing no signs of slowing down in 2018.
The most prevalent diseases reported nationally and across the state are gonorrhea and chlamydia.
“We are seeing a nationwide increase in gonorrhea and chlamydia, and the numbers in our health district are higher than what we used to see in the past,” Tracy McCulloch, the community health director for Southeast Idaho Public Health, told the Journal via email this week. “Chlamydia and gonorrhea have been steadily trending up for several years, though we did not see a dramatic increase from last year to this year.”
Though the rate of reported gonorrhea cases in Southeast Idaho has decreased approximately 14 percent from a year ago, south-central Idaho has experienced a 203 percent increase, according to state health district officials. Nationally, the CDC recorded an average increase of 67 percent in gonorrhea diagnoses.
While the sharp increase in gonorrhea diagnoses across the country might be caused by the disease becoming resistant to nearly every class of antibiotics used to treat it, Matulonis-Edgar says there have been no antibiotic-resistant cases of gonorrhea reported in the state of Idaho.
From Jan. 1 to Aug. 28, 2018, in Idaho’s south-central health district, which includes Twin Falls, Camas, Jerome, Minidoka, Lincoln, Cassia, Gooding and Blaine counties, HIV cases rose from eight during the same period last year to 11. Gonorrhea cases escalated to 82 from 27, chlamydia cases dropped to 466 from 485 and syphilis cases doubled from two to four, according to the Times-News.
From Jan. 1 to Sept. 4, Idaho’s southeastern health district, which includes Butte, Caribou, Franklin, Oneida, Bannock, Power, Bingham and Bear Lake counties, reported HIV cases fell from two during the same period last year to none. Gonorrhea cases dropped to 49 from 56, chlamydia cases rose to 268, up from 253, and syphilis cases fell from four to one, according to statistics McCulloch provided to the Journal this week.
Health experts across the state have been left scratching their heads trying to determine what might be causing the record number of STDs.
“It could be that we have more people that are getting in and getting tested, and we are finding more cases than we have in the past,” Matulonis-Edgar said. “It could be that people aren’t as consistently using condoms or not having conversations with their sexual partners. There are definitely more hook-up sites today than there were in the past, and people are having more anonymous sex than they have had in the past. This makes it harder to find partners (who have contracted an STD) to notify their partners.”
The increase could also be attributed to barriers such as having access to getting tested.
“In Idaho alone, we are a smaller state and some communities don’t have access or may not be comfortable going to their health care provider because that person knows everyone in town,” Matulonis-Edgar added.
Meanwhile, STD education and outreach remain top-priorities of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, its coordinated health districts and community business organizations — despite decreased national funding for such programs, Matulonis-Edgar said.
“We have a decrease in funding and an increase in STDs,” Matulonis-Edgar said. “We are still wondering what we are going to do about this. At the national level, people are really working to get more funding for jurisdictions to do more around STDs, but anything dealing with sex people don’t want to have the conversations about because it’s taboo.”
Matulonis-Edgar says the Department of Health and Welfare works closely with all seven health districts across the state to provide training assistance, funding for outreach and education, and testing resources for the health districts to use.
“We also work with many community-based organizations throughout the state to offer free and reduced testing for individuals,” Matulonis-Edgar added. “We also give out lots of free condoms for health districts and community-based organizations, and once a year we offer a provider training on STDs specifically so that health care professionals can understand the national and local trends as well as any new treatments.”
Matulonis-Edgar says the most important message she would like to share is that anyone who is sexually active is encouraged to speak with their partners and to get routinely tested regardless of whether they have symptoms or not.
Heather Schaper, a physician assistant and mid-level medical director at Health West in Pocatello, says STD testing is not only available from Health West at a reduced cost for adults who qualify based on income, but the center can also test those who are sexually active and under the age of 18. Schaper said it’s also important to try and destigmatize conversations about sex.
“What we can do most of all to promote detection of these diseases is to present an open and non-judgmental medical face to our patients,” Schaper said. “And we actively try to get an unbiased sexual history from folks even though talking about their sex lives is so scary for fear of judgement.”
But for Schaper, understanding what can be done to reduce the number of STDs throughout the state is more important than knowing why the rates are increased.
One solution might be offering more sex education in the state of Idaho that focuses not only on what STDs are but also safe practices at preventing them. Currently, Idaho public schools utilize an abstinence-only approach to sex education, Schaper said.
“People across the board are having unprotected sex with multiple partners,” Schaper said. “If that rate is increasing, then maybe we need to stop asking why and start looking for answers or best practices in other places.”