Health & Medicine

California STD cases reach 20-year high – increases outpace rest of U.S.

A health educator with the County of Sacramento opens a packet that includes condoms and information to get tested for SDTs during a public health fair at Sacramento State on April 12, 2011
A health educator with the County of Sacramento opens a packet that includes condoms and information to get tested for SDTs during a public health fair at Sacramento State on April 12, 2011

The number of cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis grew in California for the second consecutive year in 2015, hitting a 20-year statewide high for the three sexually transmitted diseases.

The California Department of Public Health called the numbers concerning while releasing the data Tuesday and noted that they are rising faster than in the rest of the country. The report found a 9 percent increase in cases of chlamydia, a 20 percent rise in gonorrhea and a 29 percent increase in primary and secondary syphilis in California since 2014. Those same diagnoses rose by 6 percent, 13 percent and 9 percent nationally in the same year.

Experts attribute the higher frequency of the STDs to declines in condom use, fewer people getting tested and better public health reporting methods. In 2015, an average of 12.5 per 100,000 people in California were diagnosed with primary and secondary syphilis, 139 out of 100,000 people had gonorrhea and 486 out of 100,000 people had chlamydia.

“California STD rates continue to be highest in young people 15 to 24 years of age and especially females,” said Dr. Heidi Bauer, chief of the STD control branch for the state Public Health Department in a statement. “Young women are the most vulnerable to infertility and other serious long-term reproductive health problems caused by STDs.”

The disparities for young people may be linked to a decline in fearful attitudes about HIV contraction and, as a result, a decline in condom use among that population.

The report also found that African American adolescent women had high rates of chlamydia while African American men saw steep increases in gonorrhea rates.

Among males, men who have sex with men account for more than 62 percent of the state’s gonorrhea cases and 84 percent of primary and secondary syphilis cases.

“Thirty years ago if you got HIV, it was a death sentence,” said Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious disease for the UC Davis Medical Center. “The treatment for HIV has gotten better – it’s easier, it’s more effective, which makes people less afraid of getting HIV. So if they’re having sex without condom use, other STDs are transmitted.”

Sacramento has historically been a hot spot for chlamydia and other STDs, but did not rank in the top three counties for any STD in 2015, according to the new report. In 2014, Sacramento County’s chlamydia rank dropped to sixth place – the lowest since 2003 and an improvement from first place in 2011. The county’s public health department attributes the decrease to boosts in sex education, free home testing kits and cooperation among clinics, schools and community groups.

Local public health departments will continue to play a crucial role in the fight against STD spread, Blumberg said. The California Healthy Youth Act, which took effect at the start of 2016, requires all school districts to offer middle and high school students age-appropriate, medically accurate instruction in sexual health and HIV prevention.

“One concern I’d have locally is do the counties, which are really on the front lines, have enough resources to provide education as well as partner tracing and treatment?” he said. “(Sex education) really varies depending on where kids are. You hope that primary education comes from their parents. You don’t want them relying on their peers for information.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola