Sexually transmitted infections are on the rise across the country, according to new data published by Pinal County Health Services. The city of Maricopa and its surrounding communities are no exception.
In a Dec.13 presentation to the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, Director of Pinal County Public Health Services District Dr. Shauna McIsaac said, despite certain sexually transmitted diseases reaching their lowest historical rate in the late 20th century, certain STIs have been on the rise in recent years.
“Although 20 years ago, gonorrhea rates were at historic lows, and syphilis was close to elimination, rates of sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. have now increased three years in a row,” McIsaac said.
In 2017 alone, from January through September, Pinal County has seen an average of more than three new cases of syphilis per month, whereas the previous five years saw an average of less than one new case of syphilis per month.
Likewise, on average, 20-30 Pinal County patients tested positive for gonorrhea in the previous five years. In 2017 that average has jumped to nearly 40 patients testing positive per month.
The cause of this influx is difficult to precisely determine, Infectious Disease and Epidemiology Section Manager Graham Briggs said. However, he added, what is clear is the demographic where these spikes are being seen – young people and men who have sex with other men, also known as MSM.
People in those demographics tend to be those individuals engaged in riskier sexual behavior, Briggs said. This has little or nothing to do with their sexuality, he said, and instead had more to do with their reported behavior, such as repeated unprotected sex with multiple partners.
“In Pinal County, while we’re seeing an increase, we don’t know if it’s just because of an increase in MSM. We’re looking at the heterosexual couple being exposed,” Briggs said.
Pinal County has also seen a recent case of syphilis in a pregnant female, Briggs said, which can pose a danger to the child, as the STI can be passed congenitally.
At any rate, according to the Center for Disease Control, Americans ages 15-24, while only accounting for 27 percent of the sexually active population, account for 50 percent of known sexually transmitted infections.
Aside from unprotected sex with multiple partners, the CDC says this increased rate in that demographic is likely caused by any combination of factors, including biology, confidentiality concerns, insufficient screenings and lack of access to healthcare.
Biologically speaking, the CDC says young women are simply more susceptible to certain health issues, including most STIs. Additionally, young people don’t often receive CDC recommended screenings for STIs like chlamydia, nor do they disclose “risk behaviors” to their physicians.
The CDC also expresses concern that most young people either lack insurance or the transportation to access preventive services provided by local health departments and Planned Parenthood.
Factors such as these increase the degree of danger associated with the less-forgiving STIs such as syphilis, which, Briggs said, can cause irreversible harm if not treated during the initial stages of infection.
“We are really good at killing syphilis bacteria,” Briggs said. “What we’re not so good at is identifying infections early in people that don’t seek medical care.”
One telltale sign of syphilis infection sometimes over looked, Briggs said, is palmar-plantar rash – reddish, swollen spots that occur in the palms and bottoms of the feet.
When caught early, syphilis and gonorrhea are easily treated with penicillin and antibiotics, respectively.
The appearance of a new antibiotic-resistant form of gonorrhea, however, also has Briggs and other officials concerned.
The CDC says there are nearly 820,000 new gonorrhea infections a year in the United States, making the prospect of a drug-resistant form of the STI all the more disheartening.
To combat STIs, the CDC suggests, multiple courses of action.
First, officials suggest abstaining from sexual activity. Second, those who engage in sexual activity, are encouraged to use protection, especially condoms, and keep their number of sexual partners to a minimum. Third, the CDC recommends biannual medical exams, which include STI screenings, and communication with sexual partners to encourage them to also receive regular screenings.
Maricopa residents can obtain low- or no-cost screening and prevention at the Maricopa office of Pinal County Health Services, 41600 W. Smith-Enke Road, Suite 15, near the Maricopa Public Library.
For a full list of Pinal County Health Department location, visit their website.