Editorial: Cuts to public health come back to hurt county

Published: Saturday, Jul. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 21, 2013 - 10:40 am

Anyone who wants to understand the alarming rise in sexually transmitted disease in Sacramento County need only look at the numbers.

Five years ago, Sacramento County had half a dozen public health clinics to serve the poor. Today, only one still operates. Five years ago, Sacramento had 10 communicable disease investigators who tracked STD cases and contacted sex partners of infected patients to make sure they got treatment.

As The Bee's Cynthia Craft reported Friday, the county today has only one full-time investigator and another who works half time. By necessity, the shrunken staff limits its investigations to pregnant women with untreated chlamydia.

During the recession, as the county cut back on services for the poor, public health has suffered. The impacts of those cuts can be seen in the rise of STDs, especially among poor minority youths. Chlamydia was up 27 percent in Sacramento County between 2008 and 2011, gonorrhea rose 8 percent and syphilis a whopping 128 percent.

Beyond the county's health care network, effective STD prevention requires education. In the past, school districts used state and local grants to fund organizations like Planned Parenthood to provide age-appropriate education to teenagers and preteens on how to protect against unwanted pregnancies and STDs. Such education is effective. Teen births have plummeted across the state. But as those grant funds have dried up, STDs have trended upward.

Also alarming is the fact that Sacramento has among the highest rates of these diseases when compared with all other counties in California. In 2012, Sacramento had the third-highest rate for gonorrhea among the 58 counties and the fourth-highest rates for chlamydia and syphilis. All counties suffered cutbacks during the recession. So Sacramento's disproportionately high rates are difficult to explain and impossible to justify.

Dr. Olivia Kasirye, Sacramento County's public health officer, concedes officials don't fully understand why rates locally are so high but says lack of education and a shortage of clinics alone don't account for it. She points to increasing levels of high-risk behavior, specifically high levels of casual, unprotected sex with multiple partners, especially when accompanied by drug and alcohol use.

Too many young men and women think that STDs can be easily cured with a pill, but Dr. Kasirye points out they fail to understand that many of these diseases remain asymptomatic for long periods of time. Before the disease is detected an infected woman can be rendered infertile, and young men can suffer brain damage and ulcerated penises. Both men and women infected with chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis become more susceptible to HIV-AIDS, a life-threatening chronic disease for which there is no cure.

County health officials are desperately seeking answers to the STD epidemic and organizing community leaders to help address the crisis.

Those wishing to learn more or get involved should go to the county health department website at www.dhhs.saccounty.net.

The Bee's past stands

"Because of the recession, state lawmakers and county supervisors have had to slash budgets. But public health programs are a matter of public safety, every bit as vital as keeping cops on the beat. By cutting public health to the bone, state and local leaders place us all at risk."

– Sept. 7, 2010

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