After a 150 percent increase in reported gonorrhea cases from 2011 to 2012 in Centre County, the sexually transmitted diseases program at the Pennsylvania Department of Health is now working with University Health Services to begin offering gonorrhea culturing through the department’s Bureau of Laboratories.
Kait Gillis, the Department’s deputy press secretary, said that the reported cases of gonorrhea in Centre County increased from 26 reported cases in 2011 to 65 in 2012, constituting the 150 percent increase.
“Of the 65 cases that were reported last year, 41 of those were individuals aged 20 to 24, which represents 63 percent of that number,” Gillis said. “In Pennsylvania, only 36 percent generally falls into that age range. And that’s statewide, excluding Philadelphia.”
That’s not all — the department of health feels that the cases were “vastly underreported” due to “the actual cases getting reported into the client’s county of residence,” Gillis said.
Essentially, when a person tests positive for a sexually transmitted disease, the tally is placed within the person’s county of residence.
Due to a significant out-of-state and international population entering and leaving Centre County regularly, the actual number of cases could be much higher than reported, Gillis said.
“The Department of Health believes the higher rates may be due to an increase in risky behavior and a perception that oral sex is ‘safe,’ ” Gillis said via email.
The gonorrhea culturing offered by the Department of Health and UHS will be “at no charge to the students and will allow UHS to test for pharyngeal gonorrhea,” Gillis said.
In addition to an increase in reported gonorrhea cases, Centre County experienced a slight increase in the chlamydia count for those aged 15 to 24 from 2009 to 2010, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Epidemiologic Query and Mapping System.
In 2009, the chlamydia count for 15 to 24-year-olds was 215 and increased to 300 in 2010.
STD surveillance is a slow and careful process, which makes the availability of more present data scarce, Gillis said. The department of health is currently calibrating further data for 2011.
According to the Center for Disease Control’s 2011 sexually transmitted disease surveillance, reported chlamydia cases in the total population of Pennsylvania increased from 2010 to 2011, going from 47,518 to 52,884 respectively.
According to the same CDC surveillance, gonorrhea cases statewide increased as well, though to a lesser degree — cases in 2010 were 12,883 and rose to 13,770 in 2011.
There could be many potential factors causing this increase in rates, and Shelley Haffner, the nurse manager of infection control and prevention/professional development at UHS, said that the rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea has seen an increase due to the increased amount of testing and awareness in the area.
“If we see increased numbers, it’s due to the amount of students who are being tested for it,” Haffner said. “But that’s only part of it.”
Other possible causes include an actual increase in the spread of STDs in Centre County, a phenomenon Jenny Summers, executive director of the Pregnancy Resource Clinic, feels can be partially attributed to the “hook up” culture that has become prevalent in many college towns, not excluding State College.
“You have to be really, really careful and realize that every time you enter into a physical sexual relationship with somebody, you are putting yourself at risk,” Summers said. “With the culture of hook ups, people are having sex without knowing each other’s last names, or finding themselves at a party and getting drunk and then finding themselves in someone’s apartment they don’t know very well, so we see some sad stories.”
The Pregnancy Resource Clinic began testing for STDs in November 2012.
The clinic has since tested a total of 74 patients for both gonorrhea and chlamydia, finding that 8.11 percent were positive for chlamydia and 1.34 percent were positive for gonorrhea, Summers said.
Though many may have a cavalier attitude towards bacterial STDs due to their remediable nature, they pose consequences on reproductive health.
“The reason why we’re doing screening is that they’re finding that men and women who are having sexual intercourse at a younger age with more partners. By the time they want to get pregnant, they have problems conceiving,” Summers said. “Each time you have chlamydia, your fertility decreases by 25 percent. By the third time, you can be considered infertile.”
When it comes to the numbers, it cannot be contested that the threat of sexually transmitted disease is imminent. Experts say students and members of this community must realize they are not alone in the battle for their sexual health.
According to the CDC chlamydia fact sheet, a large number of chlamydia cases go unreported because many times, there are no symptoms. Similarly, according to the CDC gonorrhea fact sheet, “most women with gonorrhea do not have any symptoms.” In such a situation, the most important factor becomes awareness.
“Any sexually active person can be infected with gonorrhea,” Gillis said. “Those with genital symptoms such as discharge, burning during urination, unusual sores or rash should stop having sex and see a health care provider immediately.”
Additionally, anyone with an oral, anal or vaginal sex partner who has been recently diagnosed with an STD should see a healthcare professional for evaluation.
The best prevention against STDs is abstinence, though having a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a known uninfected individual and using latex condoms correctly and consistently can reduce your personal risk, Gillis said.
If you are having sex regularly, talking to past sexual partners and getting tested is imperative, Summers said.
The Pregnancy Resource Clinic offers free and confidential testing to its clients for both chlamydia and gonorrhea.
Another area testing site is the Centre/Huntingdon Tapestry of Health, located in Bellefonte, which offers a confidential testing. According to the Tapestry of Health website, the Bellefonte office offers free walk-in STD testing on Wednesdays, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
UHS is another resource for those looking to get tested. Haffner said UHS tests for a wide variety of STDs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, hepatitis, herpes and syphilis.
UHS will be offering a free STD clinic from 12 to 4 p.m. March 21, where gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and HIV will be tested for based on the history of the individual patient.
Haffner feels that UHS has been leading a “pretty good campaign” to encourage students to get tested annually, but believes there is work yet to be done.
“Sexual health is something that makes up who you are. It shouldn’t be a social stigma,” Haffner said. “It should be something that all responsible adults do.”