Health experts confront rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — Rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)  are on the rise across the country, and Michigan is no exception.

“During the past few years, rates are up nationally for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis,” said Lynn Sutfin, a public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Michigan follows that trend for chlamydia and gonorrhea but reports of syphilis have been declining in the state, she said.

From 2006 to 2011, the average number of cases of chlamydia was just under 45,000, according to the department. Between 2011 and 2015, the average climbed to 47,285. In 2016, there were 47,414 cases.

There were 12,866 cases of gonorrhea reported in Michigan during 2016, up from the average 11,334 between 2011 and 2015.

STDs are spread through unprotected sex, Sutfin said.

“Chlamydia is fairly common among adolescents in many parts of the state,” she said. “And it is spread fairly easily.”

Especially hard hit are Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Kent counties.

One reason some STDs spread so rapidly is people don’t know they have one.

“Several STDs don’t really come with symptoms,” said Meghan Swain, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health, based in Lansing. “They don’t know they have an STD and they’re unintentionally transmitting it to others.”

Some STDs do have symptoms, but they may go unnoticed or may be mistaken for something else, such as a bladder infection.

Most STDs are curable with the right treatment, Swain said. However, if STDs are left untreated, they can result in serious health complications.

An effective way to prevent the spread of STDs is treat those who are infected.

“We really encourage people who think there’s even the smallest chance they have an STD to get tested,” Swain said.

Local health departments urge those who many have been exposed to get tested as well.

“We provide testing for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C,” said Sheryl Slocum, a registered nurse with District Health Department #10. “We provide treatment for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, genital warts and trichomoniasis.”

District Health Department #10 covers Crawford, Kalkaska, Lake, Manistee, Mason, Mecosta, Missaukee, Newaygo, Oceana and Wexford counties.

Another way to keep STDs from spreading is by raising awareness, including condom distribution and educating the public and health professionals, Sutfin said. “Michigan also has a robust screening program at high schools to increase sexual health awareness, education and access to care.”

Slocum said local health departments also work to create awareness. Anyone who goes to a clinic is assessed for STD risks and is educated about prevention measures.

“Our staff offers presentations to schools within our jurisdiction, along with any community groups or organizations,” she said. “These can encompass information on our services, STD symptoms and treatment options, and safe sexual health practices.”

She added that the department has started the Sexual Health Ambassador program that trains young adults about sexual health. These ambassadors then accompany staff members to events where they talk with their peers.

Swain said education through social media, schools and news releases is an important way to create awareness when STD rates increase.

“We’re always concerned about STDs,” she said “Whenever there’s an uptick in cases, we really push awareness campaigns.”