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'Dramatic increase' in sexually transmitted diseases in Orange County

Photo by Al Greer via Flickr Creative Commons

While the number of Californians infected with sexually transmitted diseases has risen in recent years, increases in Orange County have been more dramatic.

In the past five years, cases of syphilis in the county have increased by more than 400 percent, gonorrhea by more than 200 percent and chlamydia by more than 50 percent. According to provisional data, in 2016 there were 12,597 cases of chlamydia, 2,973 cases of gonorrhea and 553 cases of early stage syphilis.

Statewide, the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections are found among young people, African-Americans, and gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Dr. Christopher Ried, medical director for HIV/STD services for the Orange County Health Care Agency, says part of the problem is that patients may not know they are infected. "It's a particular problem that men who have sex with men have asymptomatic infections of gonorrhea and chlamydia."

Neighboring counties have seen increases in infections too, but not at the same rate. 

Dr. Sonali Kulkarni, medical director of the division of HIV/STD programs in the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, says "there's no one single explanation" for the increase in the number of people becoming infected in California, "but we do know condom use is declining overall in the general population."  In 2015, there were 53,069 cases of chlamydia, 16,469 cases of gonorrhea, and 4,630 cases of syphilis diagnosed in L.A. County.

"Fortunately syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia are easily treated through short courses of antibiotics, and so it's really important for individuals to get screened and treated," Kulkarni says.

Ensuring access to screening, treatment and prevention is one of the aims of We Can Stop STDs LA, a coalition of community groups and individuals working to reduce sexually transmitted disease in South Los Angeles.

"It's not something that's talked about enough. There's a lot of shaming and blaming," says Valerie Coachman-Moore, the group's convener.