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Rural Blog: Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise as funding to prevent and treat them falls

“Health officials are tracking record-breaking rates of sexually transmitted disease, including a resurgence of some infections which had been considered rare, such as gonorrhea and syphilis. These STDs are on the rise amid cuts to public health budgets dedicated to testing, prevention, and public outreach,” Mary Meehan reports for Ohio Valley ReSource, which covers Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

Health officials are worried about this strain of gonorrhea that
is resistant to antibiotics. (Centers for Disease Control photo)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2.4 million new cases of STDs in 2017; about 40 percent of those were among people aged 15 to 25. The number of babies born with syphilis increased from 362 in 2013 to 918 in 2017, mostly in Southern and Western states. In some Ohio Valley communities, chlamydia infections rose more than 200 percent and gonorrhea rose 1,000 percent or more between 2011 and 2017, Meehan reports.

The surge among younger people could stem from a greater likelihood to engage in risky sexual behavior. Jim Thacker, a spokesperson for the Madison County Health Department in Kentucky, told Meehan that people born after the AIDS epidemic was largely contained may be less fearful about STDs. And the availability of effective, long-term birth control might make young adults and teens less prone to use condoms, he said.

Some of those affected by STDs are much younger than teens: according to a recent CDC report, more infants are dying after catching syphilis from their mothers during birth. Syphilis is easily treated with antibiotics, but an untreated pregnant woman has up to an 80 percent chance of passing it on to her baby during birth, Meehan reports.

Matt Prior, a spokesperson for the nonprofit National Coalition of STD Directors, told Meehan that STDs are a public health crisis often hitting areas already hurting from the opioid epidemic, such as Appalachia. Meehan reports, “As rates go up, Prior said, funding has gone down. So while STDs have increased by 30 percent in the last five years to reach an all-time high, the amount of federal money for prevention and education has consistently gone down since 2003. Prior says that federal funding is critical for states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio.”

Prior told Meehan, “The federal STD prevention line is the only line or funding streams these states have so it is really the first and last line of defense.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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