Health & Medicine

STD rates dropping in Sacramento County

Health educators stress the value of condom use in order to prevent the spread of chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Health educators stress the value of condom use in order to prevent the spread of chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases.

A boost in sex education, free home testing kits and cooperation among clinics, schools and community groups has helped Sacramento County retreat from high rates of chlamydia infections as well as of teenage pregnancies over the past several years. Still, the county outpaces much of the rest of the state in sexually transmitted diseases.

Chlamydia cases have dropped since 2011, when 9,080 Sacramento County residents contracted the sexually transmitted disease. That year, the average of 634.7 cases per 100,000 people was the third highest out of 58 California counties, according to a California Department of Public Health report.

By 2014, the rate had dropped to 526.1 chlamydia infections per 100,000 people, the sixth highest in the state but Sacramento County’s lowest ranking since 2003.

Teen pregnancy rates have also fallen over the last 15 years, keeping in line with a national trend. The county’s Community Health Status Report recorded a 25.5 percent drop in teen pregnancy from 2002 to 2012.

Sacramento County has beaten back the infection rates in large part by boosting education for young women about safe sex, said Dr. Olivia Kasirye, the county public health officer. Nearly 4 percent of Sacramento County females between the ages of 15 and 24 had chlamydia in 2014.

Kasirye also credited the county’s partnership with the website “I Know,” which offers free home testing kits and fact sheets about the diseases. Local clinicians, community group representatives and school district officials have also worked together to discourage risky sexual behavior and track down aid for those affected.

“There was a large push to provide education and screening for that group, and I think that has shown some success,” Kasirye said of young women. “(We) find out the last time they’ve had their test, especially if they’re sexually active, and also give them some education to make sure they take measures to protect themselves.”

Not all neighboring regions have been as fortunate. Chlamydia and gonorrhea rates jumped in Solano, Placer, San Joaquin and Yolo counties from 2013 to 2014, though all remained well below Sacramento County’s average.

The region’s STD problem can be traced back to its historically higher proportion of young people, who live in more tightly packed, urban areas and are more likely to be sexually active, Kasirye said.

“If you have a situation where you have a lot of younger people (in) much closer proximity, you’re likely to see more of this kind of activity, more STDs,” she said. “The ones that have the highest rates are usually large urban counties and cities.”

Chlamydia infection rates are particularly high among young African American women, while gonorrhea afflicts young African Americans of both genders, the Sacramento County data show. Kasirye said a gap in health care services for different racial groups helps explain the disparity.

Kasirye said women also tend to receive reproductive health screenings more often than men, so more of them receive diagnoses of chlamydia, which may not provoke visible symptoms.

Though syphilis affects less than 0.01 percent of county residents, Kasirye said its potentially lethal consequences and 260 percent growth rate since 2010 show a larger problem. Syphilis is more prevalent among men of all races.

Symptoms such as rashes, bumps and sores are associated with many STDs, including syphilis, which means the disease can often be misdiagnosed without proper testing. If left untreated, the bacteria can lead to neurological damage, blindness and even death.

“Even though the numbers are low, if you were to look at the rate of increase, it’s much higher than for any of the other diseases,” Kasirye said.

Cares Community Health offers free STD testing, although it charges for some treatments. An influx of interested people, mostly men between the ages of 18 and 32, seek testing during the summer and after major holidays, said outreach, education and prevention manager Jacqueline Verwayen.

“The summertime we’re a little bit more busy because people are out of school, there’s more parties happening,” she said. “We see a lot more people coming after New Year’s, after Valentine’s Day, just things where people are out and about and having a good time. Maybe they put themselves at risk and want to come in and get screened.”

At the Folsom Cordova Unified School District, the curriculum includes lessons on contraception, abstinence and STD prevention and treatment as part of a semester-long health course, said district spokesman Daniel Thigpen.

Folsom Cordova students must also study “family life” as a part of health classes in seventh and 10th grades, though parents may choose to remove their children from the courses.

“These are pressures and risks and realities for all of our students as they’re coming of age,” Thigpen said. “We want to make sure they’re well equipped to have productive conversations with friends and family about sexual activity to help them navigate the world around them.”