Health & Medicine

Sacramento County fights rising tide of STDs including syphilis and gonorrhea

Reported cases of gonorrhea and syphilis have risen dramatically in Sacramento County, reflecting a statewide trend, the California Department of Public Health reported Tuesday.

The state’s rates of sexually transmitted diseases have spiked in recent years, health officials said.

In the last five years, the county’s number of syphilis cases jumped by 38 percent and its gonorrhea cases rose by 24 percent. Chlamydia cases were only slightly higher, health officials said.

All three diseases can be cured, but if undetected or left untreated they can lead to infertility or other serious complications. Syphilis, for example, can damage internal organs and spread to the nervous system or eyes, causing paralysis or blindness.

Staci Syas, STD and HIV program manager for Sacramento County, said decreased condom use and lack of awareness are among factors contributing to the rise in STDs.

“With HIV no longer being a death sentence and more of a chronic disease, you see people’s fear of contracting it decrease as does their condom use,” Syas said. The effectiveness of intrauterine and implant contraceptives in preventing pregnancy has also made condoms seem unnecessary to some, she said.

Rates of infection are highest among people aged 15 to 34 and African Americans, according to Sacramento County data.

“A lot of teens and young people don’t know that if you’re not showing symptoms, that doesn’t mean you don’t have anything,” said Cathy Schulze, regional program manager for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. It’s recommended that anyone who is sexually active get screened regularly.

To combat the rising rates of STDs, Sacramento County health officials have convened the Sacramento Workgroup to Improve Sexual Health, a collection of representatives from community groups, local school districts and healthcare providers. The group identifies trends and works on plans that target at-risk neighborhoods, Syas said.

The county also holds intervention trainings at juvenile halls and continuation schools to teach young people about the importance of wearing a condom, how to talk to their partner about wearing one and what to do when they don’t have a condom.

Clinical staff at Sacramento Planned Parenthood clinics have noticed cases of STDs, especially syphilis, are continuing to climb. Data from 2017 so far shows 96 positive tests for syphilis, which already surpasses totals for the last three years.

“The number of reported STDs in California is increasing at a concerning rate,” state Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith said in a statement. “This is the third year in a row that we have seen increases in chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.”

Since 2000, cases of chlamydia and syphilis have steadily increased. Gonorrhea cases also trended upwards, but began to taper off in 2006. However in 2014, case numbers for STDs took off statewide.

The trend for syphilis is of particular concern for health officials since this disease was on the verge of eradication in 2000. Then, cases numbered 5,970 nationwide. California had nearly as many cases last year alone.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of syphilis cases were in men who reported having sex with other men. But in recent years, more women have been getting it too.

Untreated syphilis in women increases the rates of congenital syphilis, which is when an infected mother passes the disease to her infant during pregnancy. It can cause bone deformities, stillbirths or early infant death.

Hot spots such as Fresno and Kern counties drew national attention for the high rates of congenital syphilis in 2014. Cases continue to rise. According to the CDC, California is ranked second in the nation for congential syphilis.

Molly Sullivan: 916-321-1176, @SullivanMollyM

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