In 2017, a record number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were reported in the United States. There were close to 2.3 million cases of chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea, which is 200,000 more than were reported in 2016. Those are the only three STIs that physicians are required to report. The report doesn’t include HIV or herpes, though on average HIV rates are declining. Since 2013, diagnoses of gonorrhea have increased by 67 percent. The rate of syphilis diagnoses increased by 76 percent.
One Oregon county is working to help prevent this increase in the spread of STIs. In Clackamas County, located in Northwest Oregon, health officials are tracking down sexual partners of patients diagnosed with an STI.
When a patient is diagnosed with an STI, health officials ask the patient for the names of their sexual partners. Health officials then call the partners to inform them that they’ve had a partner test positive for an STI and encourage them to get themselves tested as well.
When partners can’t be reached over the phone, health officials will make house calls to try and speak with these people. While health officials encourage the infected party to talk with their partners, not everyone will, often out of embarrassment or shame. While it’s a difficult conversation, it’s a necessary step to take in an attempt to lower infection rates. The health workers making house calls use the visits as an opportunity to help educate about these infections and how to keep them from spreading.
In Clackamas County, syphilis rates have increased by 1,300 percent over the last eight years. Untreated syphilis leads to a rise in the potentially fatal fetal condition of congenital syphilis. If a pregnant woman has untreated syphilis, it’s incredibly common that she will suffer a miscarriage. 40 percent of fetuses that have syphilis that are carried to term are either stillborn or pass away shortly after birth. The babies that live past birth may have deformed bones, enlarged livers and spleens, jaundice, anemia, meningitis, deafness, blindness, rashes, and other nerve and brain-related problems. In 2015, there were 453 cases of congenital syphilis. In 2016, there were 628.
A combination of reasons are responsible for the increase in infection rates. One is the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Clackamas County and two other counties that make up the Portland metro area have received state and federal grants to help pay for these outreach programs. In addition to health officials tracking down sexual partners, the counties have other measures in place to promote prevention, including testing at-risk populations, strengthening prevention activities, educating the public, and enhancing screenings. For the people who are diagnosed, health workers are offering them better support in dealing with the infection.