Nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) occur in the United States every year costing the American healthcare system nearly $16 billion in direct medical costs alone, says a recent report1 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). America’s youth shoulder a substantial burden of these infections.
According to the report, young people ages 15-24 are at highest risk for STDs. Although they make up just 27% of the sexually active population, CDC estimates that half the country’s new STDs, increasingly referred to as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), occur among young men and women in this age group.
Dr. Unini Odama, health director for the ten-county Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) Northwest Health District headquartered in Rome, acknowledges “what we see in Northwest Georgia is very similar to what we see nationally. That’s especially true with chlamydia and gonorrhea, the two STDs we see the most.”
“Our district rates are lower than statewide rates for these two STDs,” Odama says. In 2016, the latest year for which reported data is available, Georgia DPH records show that in the Northwest Health District the adjusted rate per 100,000 population for chlamydia was 355.8, while the statewide rate was 594.7. The adjusted rate per 100,000 population for gonorrhea in the Northwest Health District was 115.9, while the statewide rate was 195.42
“Yet our data also show that these STDs take a particularly heavy toll on young people in Northwest Georgia,” Odama notes. Georgia DPH records show that in the Northwest Health District the 2016 adjusted rate per 100,000 population for chlamydia in all ages was 355.8, while the rate for the high-risk 15-24 age group jumped to 1,888.6. Similarly, the health district’s 2016 rate for gonorrhea for all ages was 115.9, while the rate for the high-risk 15-24 age group was 477.4.3
Compared with older adults, according to the CDC report, sexually active adolescents aged 15–19 years and young adults aged 20–24 years are at higher risk of acquiring STDs for a combination of behavioral, biological, and cultural reasons, including peer norms and media influences. Young people also face unique barriers to STD services, including stigma, confidentiality concerns, inability to pay, and limited access to expert healthcare providers, the CDC report states.
The long-term health consequences posed by STDs are serious and often irreversible, especially if not diagnosed and treated early. “Many people do not have any symptoms when they are infected with an STD,” Northwest Health District Epidemiologist Melissa Hunter cautions, “so if you think you might be at risk, get tested.”
Hunter reminds that “confidential STD testing and treatment is available at all ten Northwest Georgia health departments.” Hunter and her staff keep tabs on STD cases in Northwest Georgia and, through the local efforts of nurse managers and clinical staff at each county health department, conduct STD education, prevention, testing, and treatment.
There are effective ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat STDs,” Hunter says. “STD testing, screening, and early diagnoses are essential in preventing transmission and the long-term health consequences of STDs. Abstaining from sex, reducing the number of sexual partners, and consistently and correctly using condoms are all effective prevention strategies.”
Hunter also wants to make sure healthcare providers and the public are aware that “we have seen increases in syphilis in Northwest Georgia, although our rates are lower than statewide rates. In 2016, our ten-county district had an adjusted rate per 100,000 population in all ages for syphilis of 8.5, while in 2010 it was just 3.6.4”
Persons infected with syphilis may not have obvious symptoms, Hunter explains, “so screening for infection and appropriate treatment are essential. Persons at higher risk for syphilis and all pregnant women should be screened for infection routinely and treated with antibiotics when infection is identified.”
“Historically, most of our newly diagnosed syphilis cases have been in older adults, but now we’re seeing syphilis in more young adults, including more women, who are being diagnosed when they receive prenatal care or while hospitalized for delivery.”
It’s especially important for pregnant women to receive proper prenatal care, including STD testing, in fact, it’s the law. Georgia law (§31-17-4.2.) mandates that all pregnant women be tested for syphilis and HIV in the first and third trimesters of their pregnancy.
STDs can have dire health consequences, especially for young women and newborn babies, two populations who are increasingly at risk. Left untreated, women can experience infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), ectopic or abnormal pregnancies, and chronic pelvic pain from STDs.
Safe, effective vaccines are also available to prevent STDs like hepatitis B and some types of the human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause disease and cancer, and for all individuals who are sexually active – particularly young people – STD screening and prompt treatment, if infected, are critical to protect a person’s health and prevent transmission to others.
More information about confidential STD testing and treatment at Northwest Georgia health departments may be found at https://bit.ly/2JjGcDE. Addresses and contact information for Northwest Georgia health departments may be found at https://bit.ly/2nBbXOt. Extensive information about STDs is available at https://www.cdc.gov/std.