By Ernst Lamothe Jr.
New cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States reached an all-time high in 2016, according an annual report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was released late last year. There were 1.6 million cases of chlamydia, 470,000 cases of gonorrhea and 28,000 of syphilis reported in 2016.
“We are seeing cases of increase rates of syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV nationwide,” said Gail Burstein, Erie County Department of Health commissioner. “The issue is that we don’t know for sure if that is because we are doing more testing for these diseases or if people’s behaviors are getting risky. It may be a combination of both.”
Erie County itself had 5,201 chlamydia cases in 2006 along with 1,874 gonorrhea cases and 134 syphilis cases. Burstein recently offered five thoughts about sexually transmitted diseases.
Burstein said there has been an increase in incidence of sexually transmitted diseases among gay men but the rates are consistent to those affecting other groups. She suggests that the key to stopping the trend will always be testing. And testing has expanded in several ways to make the process simpler for people, including being available in emergency room departments and being covered for by the Affordable Care Act.
“You don’t need a pelvic exam or any painful swab. Many of the tests can be done as a urine sample,” said Burstein. “Women can even do a self-collected vaginal swab for that to get tested.”
If left untreated, STDs can lead to serious health problems such as infertility, life-threatening ectopic pregnancy, stillbirth and increased risk of HIV infection.
Recent numbers from the CDC reported that gay men had a higher risk for syphilis and HIV than heterosexual couples. Burstein said it’s essential to have the correct test associated with the sexual act such as having a rectal test if you had anal sex and oral exam if you engage in oral sex. You can even go to your local drug store for an HIV testing kit, where you send the samples to a lab for results.
“There really is no excuse for not getting tested. It is just the mindset that has to change,” she said. “While HIV is not curable, you can live with it in the same way people live with diabetes.
“We are seeing cases of increase rates of syphilis, gonorrhea and HIV nationwide. The issue is that we don’t know for sure if that is because we are doing more testing for these diseases or if people’s behaviors are getting risky. It may be a combination of both.”
Gail Burstein, Erie County Department of Health commissioner.
2. App sex
Burstein and other medical officials believe the situation has worsened in the last decade or so thanks to social media apps and online sites where heterosexual and gay individuals can find a sexual partner easier than ever before.
“You can go on these apps and sites and people don’t have to give their real names and they really don’t know who they are having sex with,” said Burstein. “They are having sex in town and out of town and it is difficult to investigate and see how the STDs spread from community to community.”
3. Youth movement
The highest rates among sexually transmitted diseases, especially gonorrhea and chlamydia, are among people under 25 years old, especially women.
Young people aged 15-24 and men who have sex with men are at highest risk for STDs and can drive new HIV infections. Young people face unique barriers to services, including stigma, confidentiality concerns and provider resistance to sexual health discussions and testing. Physician and health providers recommend that anyone under 25 get tested once a year. Medical officials recommend that anyone over the age of 13 who is sexually active have an HIV test.
“In New York, you do not need parental consent to have an HIV or STD test,” Burstein said. “It is confidential. People don’t have to worry about their information coming out.”
Medical professionals are encouraging people to increase their health literacy, which is the ability to obtain, process and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.
“A lot of people think you have to exhibit classic symptoms like burning or irritation,” said Burstein. “That is simply not true. Most sexual transmitted diseases don’t always exhibit in obvious forms. You might be exposed to an STD in a place that is not visible. But if you don’t get tested it can cause inflammation in various areas of the body that you won’t discover until it is too late.”
It’s a simple step but often the first one ignored. Having a frank and candid discussion with your partner, partners and physicians about the issue can be uncomfortable. However, not as uncomfortable as actually having a sexually transmitted disease.
“People who are about to enter sexual relationship cannot be shy about talking about this issue,” said Burstein. “One idea that I have heard is that before a couple gets sexually active they should both go together and get tested so if someone does need to be treated they can have a fresh start.”
Note: Erie County Department of Health staffs a year-round clinic at the Jesse Nash Health Center, 608 William St., in Buffalo. Anyone can access confidential STD screening tests learn how to prevent transmission of STDs, and access comprehensive sexual health care, including family planning.