SOUTHERN UTAH – Across the country and along the Wasatch Front trends show an exceptionally high spike in cases of gonorrhea, particularly in women; Southern Utah data, however, reveals a different trend.
“We’re a different animal down here,” Southwest Utah Public Health Department spokesman David Heaton said. There is a large variance between trends in northern Utah and those in Southern Utah, both in population and geography.
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Gonorrhea happens to be 1 of 4 major sexually transmitted diseases that are tracked by the public health department. It gained traction with Utah media recently when a reporter noticed the trend along the Wasatch Front. Headlines of “Gonorrhea infection rate skyrockets in Utah” took off, Heaton said.
“The biggest STD we have down here, always, is chlamydia,” Heaton said. “In fact, we have more cases of chlamydia reported than any other disease.”
In the southwest region, including Washington, Iron, Beaver, Kane and Garfield counties, rises in chlamydia cases far exceed those in gonorrhea cases: Gonorrhea cases have risen from 4.2 to 10.8 people per 100,000 residents between 2011 and 2014, while chlamydia cases have risen from 161.7 to 203.9 people per 100,000 residents.
Chlamydia is considered the “common cold” of STDs. While it is not the most dangerous of them, and it can easily be treated, Heaton said, it often goes undetected long enough to be passed back and forth between partners.
“We joke that it’s the gift that keeps on giving,” he said of chlamydia.
Family Healthcare in Cedar City’s nurse practitioner Karen Whittemore said she could not remember having diagnosed a single case of gonorrhea in the past four years. Chlamydia however, was another story, and CEO Lori Wright said the same is true for all four Family Healthcare offices – Cedar City, Hurricane and two in St. George.
“In Washington County we would be looking at 15 cases of gonorrhea out of 150,000 residents,” she said of the recent statistics. “I don’t know where they are going to be diagnosed, but it is not to us.”
Her physicians were asked to contact the state health department if they did positively diagnose gonorrhea, Wright said, for data gathering purposes.
In fact, because it is so rarely diagnosed in Southern Utah, Wright said, Utah Department of Health Epidemiologist Joel Hartsell visited with Family Healthcare staff on March 11 to talk about updated treatment methods that they may not be familiar with.
The biggest reason the upward trend of gonorrhea cases is worrisome, Hartsell said, is because the demographics of those infected are changing; and that is unusual.
Gonorrhea used to be primarily diagnosed in men, more specifically men who have male sexual partners, but this is no longer the case. Now it is being diagnosed increasingly in heterosexual men and women, and more often in women than ever before.
Additionally, Hartsell said, men who tested positive admitted to more frequent casual sex encounters while women who test positive have an increased likelihood of using methamphetamines or having been incarcerated.
“And in the southwest health district,” Hartsell said, “it typically affects men and women who are between the ages of 20 and 29.”
Risk factors and demographics are important factors to consider when determining whether someone should be concerned with have contracted an STD of any kind, Heaton said, and gave an example of how information can be misleading:
A few years ago, the state came out with a story that said 1 in 4 adolescent females has an STD. Of course, everyone is shocked and alarmed and ‘good grief, in church, you know, 5 of these 20 girls are …’ – and, it was alarming; but when we broke it down to the local level it had zero pertinence to us.
The statistic had been a federal number that was even lower in the Wasatch front and almost nonexistent in the southwest region of the state.
The bottom line is, Heaton said, anybody who is engaging in risky behavior should be screened for all STDs at least once a year.
Like gonorrhea, chlamydia can cause significant long-term damage if left untreated, Heaton said, which is why it is important to seek treatment right away if symptoms are noticed.
“Women tend to have more complications from STDs, because they don’t always notice the symptoms – so it can last longer,” he said. “And frankly, they have got more complicated plumbing for things to go wrong in.”
According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people who have chlamydia don’t know it because the disease often has no symptoms.
“It can cause serious, permanent damage to a woman’s reproductive system, making it difficult or impossible for her to get pregnant later on,” the CDC website reported. “Chlamydia can also cause a potentially fatal ectopic pregnancy.”
Both STDs are passed by having unprotected sex outside of a monogamous relationship, especially if there are multiple sexual partners, Hartsell said. Even inside of a committed relationship exposure can happen, which is why it is important to have yearly screenings even if symptoms are not present. Those without insurance or from low income homes can find resources for treatment below.
“One of the worst things to have to do is to deliver the news of a positive STD result to someone who believes they are in a fully committed relationship,” Hartsell said. “But, unfortunately, it happens.”
- Family Healthcare
- St. George | 25 N. 100 East, Suite 102 | 435-986-2565
- Millcreek High School Clinic | 2410 E. Riverside Drive | 435-986-2565
- Hurricane Middle School | 391 N. 200 West | 435-986-2565
- Cedar City Clinic | 74 W. Harding Ave. | 435-865-1387
- Planned Parenthood
- St. George 595 S. Bluff St. Suite 1 | 435-674-9933
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