Soapbox

While our focus is on Zika, don’t forget about syphilis

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pathologist Brigid Bollweg works on research into the Zika virus in Colombia’s National Institute of Health on April 26.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pathologist Brigid Bollweg works on research into the Zika virus in Colombia’s National Institute of Health on April 26. The Associated Press

High-profile efforts are underway to prepare for a potential sharp rise in the transmission of the Zika virus – either through mosquito bites or from Zika-infected males to their sexual partners.

While this work is critical, we can’t lose sight of an existing public health crisis.

In recent years, California has seen an alarming increase in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently ranked California first among all states for the total number of cases for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.

Syphilis rates in the state went up by 12 percent in 2014 and transmission of life-threatening congenital syphilis – when a mother passes the disease to her baby during pregnancy or birth – rose by a startling 79 percent.

The 2014 data also shows that STDs disproportionately affect young people, ages 15 to 24. Despite being a small portion of the sexually active population, youths and adolescents are disproportionately affected by new chlamydia and gonorrhea infections, and acquire half of the estimated 20 million new STDs diagnosed each year.

There are severe consequences, particularly for California youths, if we don’t take action to address this issue. Since most STDs don’t have obvious symptoms, they are often left undetected and untreated, which can lead to serious long-term health problems.

Unfortunately, these alarming facts do not come as a surprise to those of us on the front lines of STD prevention and treatment. For more than a decade, we have seen nothing but shrinking resources.

Since 2003, federal investment in prevention has been stagnant at best. Adjusting for inflation, public health spending was 10 percent lower in 2013 than in 2009. The National Association of County and City Health Officials reported that at the height of the recession, as many as 45 percent of local health departments faced budget cuts.

The impacts are still being felt today. In fact, since 2008, 51,700 jobs have been lost at local health departments. On the state level, the Brown administration and legislative leaders have failed to heed repeated calls to include funding for STD prevention in the state budget.

Federal and state governments must increase general investment in our weakened public health infrastructure and improve the ability of local health departments to monitor and control diseases. A portion of the supplemental Zika funding being negotiated in Congress should support STD prevention, including promoting condom use to prevent sexually transmitted Zika and other STDs.

It shouldn’t take an emerging epidemic to put the spotlight on our reduced system, but Zika can and must serve as a wake-up call.

Julie Rabinovitz is president and CEO of the California Family Health Council in Berkeley. She can be contacted at rabinovitzj@cfhc.org.

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