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.
In the Ohio Valley, for example, a review of state and federal government data shows some communities in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia have seen chlamydia infections rise by more than 200 percent between 2011 and 2017. And in four counties in Kentucky and West Virginia, reported cases of gonorrhea jumped by an astonishing 1,000 percent or more in that period.
Matt Prior is the spokesperson for the non-profit National Coalition of STD Directors. They are the folks on the front lines. Prior says STDs now represent a public health crisis, especially in parts of Appalachia already struggling with an opioid epidemic.
“We are seeing an increasing number of syphilis and other STD outbreaks associated with the opioid crisis,” he said. “States that are particularly hard hit by the opioid crisis are states that are particularly hard hit by the STD epidemic.”
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.
“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,” he said.
Prior said a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report was especially troubling. The report showed a rise in infant deaths as more newborns contract syphilis from their mothers during birth.
According to the report, the number of babies born with syphilis rose from 362 in 2013 to 918 in 2017. The cases were primarily found in Western and Southern states. In the report, Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said syphilis can result “in miscarriage, newborn death, and severe lifelong physical and mental health problems.”
Syphilis during pregnancy is easily cured with the right antibiotics. However, if left untreated, a pregnant woman with syphilis has up to an 80 percent chance of passing it on to her baby, the report said.
Prior said the mortality rate among those infected infants is high. His coalition is encouraging syphilis screening as a mandatory testduring a woman’s first prenatal visit. He said this outbreak shows the depth of the need for access to preventative care and prenatal care.
“It is essentially a failure of the public health system and a failure for our nation because we should not see mothers and children, children dying for very easily treatable and identifiable diseases,” he said.
Jim Thacker is the spokesperson for the Health Department in Madison County, Kentucky. He said public health officials expect spikes in infectious disease. Adapting to the changes and responding to them is the core mission of public health.
But, he said, the recent resurgence of diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis is something different. Overall the CDC reported 2.4 million new cases of those diseases in 2017. Thacker said a handful of cases in Madison County reflected a 300 percent jump in syphilis.
“It’s frightening any time you see something come back that you thought you had under control,” he said. Syphilis, he said, was essentially eradicated for more than 50 years.