By Rose Hoban
Sexually transmitted infections are “alive and well” around the world, according to a new analysis from the World Health Organization, with about a million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis and syphilis being transmitted daily.
In North Carolina, the good news is that rates of HIV are holding steady or starting to decrease; however, rates of other STIs have crept up slowly over the past few years.
Most concerning for public health officials is a steadily increasing rate of syphilis, dangerous because the disease can remain undetected and latent for many years, only to re-emerge in forms that are increasingly difficult to treat.
“What we are really trying to do is get the word out that syphilis hasn’t gone away,” said Jacquelyn Clymore, director for HIV/STD surveillance for the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Clymore said the rates of syphilis are growing quickly, with the number of North Carolina men diagnosed with the disease in 2014 almost double the number from 2013. And she said available data show the number of syphilis cases in men will be even higher in 2015.
“We continue to have great concern about the rising number of syphilis cases in young men who have sex with other men,” she said, noting the problem is particularly acute for young black men between the ages of 20 and 29.
In 2014, the syphilis rate for black men was four times that of Hispanic men and almost six times that of white men.
Clymore also said rates for gonorrhea and chlamydia in younger women have been on the rise in recent years. She called them “diseases of young people.”
In women, most of gonorrhea infections occur between the ages of 15 and 24; for men, the ages skew slightly higher, with most cases occurring between 20 and 29.
That means parents need to communicate with their kids about risks and how to protect themselves, Clymore said, no matter how much the thought makes you squirm.
“Humans are sexually active,” she said. “The good thing is that [these infections] are very treatable and curable. We can get rid of these things, assuming they’re caught fairly early on.”
In the past, Clymore’s division created television public service announcements to get the word out, but reaching young people today has become more complicated.
“My kids, they don’t tune into network TV.… They’re watching Amazon Prime, their phones, their computers,” she said.
“So much is happening on the Internet,” said Jeffery Williams-Knight, who does outreach for the Mecklenburg County Health Department. The county has some of the highest syphilis rates in the state.
“You don’t see a lot of black [men seeking men] gathering at bars; it’s more hookups on apps like Jack’d and Grinder.”
Both Clymore and Williams-Knight said there’s a need to use social media and get creative.
“We’re trying to get a presence on those sites, by texting, doing education,” Williams-Knight said. “We still have condom drop sites at the bars, but we’re struggling to make an impact.”
Clymore’s division is also working on new clinical guidelines for physicians for syphilis, to encourage them to talk more openly with their patients.
“That’s a difficult topic for a lot of providers to have. Not a lot of doctors are trained to do it,” she said.
Clymore said people also need to talk to their medical providers about their risk.
“It doesn’t do any good to get your cholesterol checked or your flu shot and ignore your risk for STIs.”