With COVID-19 dominating our lives for the last 18 months, it’s easy to forget that other communicable diseases are still very much present in our community. In Yellowstone County, we have seen a 32% increase in gonorrhea cases year-to-date over last year. Statewide, chlamydia has increased 8% over last year, gonorrhea 2%, and syphilis has increased 122%.
These sexually transmitted diseases are young people’s diseases. In the United States, in 2018, people ages 15-24 accounted for almost half of new STD cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Yellowstone County in 2021, the average age for chlamydia is 25, for gonorrhea it is 31, and for syphilis it is 37. There have been cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea reported in Yellowstone County in individuals as young as 13.
The most ideal way to decrease the number of STDs is to prevent them from occurring in the first place. The most effective method of prevention is to abstain from sex.
The second most effective strategy is to keep the number of sexual partners to a minimum. With each new sexual partner, there is a risk for increased exposure. For example, if you and your partner each only engage in sexual contact with one another, you have each only been exposed to one person. If, however, you and your partner engage in sexual contact with three other people, you have been exposed to seven people. If you and your partner each engage in sexual contact with 12 other people, you’ve now been exposed to 4,095 people.
As former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop famously said: “When you have sex with someone, you are having sex with everyone that he or she has had sex with in the past.”
Other highly effective prevention methods are wearing latex or polyurethane condoms and vaccination against hepatitis B and human papilloma virus (HPV). These vaccines can be received at little or no cost through many healthcare providers in our community.
Mistakes happen and you may find yourself thinking you have an STD or that you’ve been exposed to one by a partner. What do you do?
The most important first step is to get tested before you have sex with anyone again, including the person you believe exposed you to a disease.
Most health care providers offer STD testing, often at little or no cost to you. Many tests can be done with just a simple finger stick, while some do require additional testing methods.
Once you know your STD status, you can begin treatment, if necessary. Many STDs are now fully treatable, while others, though incurable, can be almost fully suppressed. There are many treatment options available, so be sure to ask your health care provider what’s best for you.
What happens if you don’t treat an STD? Some curable STDs can be dangerous if they aren’t treated. For example, if left untreated, chlamydia and gonorrhea can make it impossible for a woman to get pregnant. According to the CDC, you increase your risk of getting HIV if you have an untreated STD. Some STDs, like HIV, can be fatal if left untreated.
Syphilis is easy to miss in the earliest stage, but is easy to cure with the right medication. During pregnancy, syphilis is very harmful to a growing fetus.
STDs continue to be on the rise in Yellowstone County, but they are 100% preventable. With appropriate education, prevention, testing and treatment, we can decrease these numbers and increase health and quality of life in the youth of our communities.
For information about STD testing and treatment at RiverStone Health, call 406-247-3350. For information on vaccines for hepatitis B and HPV, call the RiverStone Immunization Clinic at 406-247-3382.
Kelly Gardner, R.N., community health services manager at RiverStone Health, can be reached at 406-651-6435.