By SARA ARTHURS
Maybe it’s been a long time since sex ed. But with sexually transmitted diseases on the rise, public health leaders want you to get educated — and they welcome your questions.
In northwest Ohio and across the nation, STDs are becoming more common.
Staff from Equitas Health, based in Lima, said half of sexually active people will contract a sexually transmitted disease by age 25, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are nearly 20 million new infections every year in the United States.
Eighty percent of sexually active people will have human papillomavirus (HPV) at some point in their lifetime, said Holly Watt, medical case manager at Equitas.
Tyler Alt, an infectious disease public health nurse with Hancock Public Health, said both chlamydia and gonorrhea are increasing in Hancock County. Both are among the few “reportable” STDs — meaning that when someone tests positive, it must be reported to the local health department.
Reasons for increase
Alt said some of the reason for the increase in STDs may be connected to substance abuse, which may lead people to be more promiscuous.
But don’t assume that if you don’t use drugs you are safe. If you have sex with one person, you’re exposed to illnesses from all of their partners — and their partners’ partners — and their partners’ partners’ partners.
Alt also said a lot of younger adults simply aren’t using condoms. At educational events, college-age young adults have told him that, nowadays, if you ask someone to use a condom you will be seen as a “prude.”
The 2018 Hancock County Community Health Assessment found that the number of youth who had ever had sexual intercourse decreased from 15 percent to 9 percent. But the percent who used a condom during their last sexual intercourse decreased from 54 percent to 29 percent.
In the assessment, 67 percent of adults reported having sexual intercourse in the past year, and 4 percent had more than one partner. Thirty-one percent of adults said they had sex without a condom in the past year.
Teresa Jones, a certified nurse practitioner at Blanchard Valley Health System’s Women and Children’s Center, said the OBGYN staff gets asked about STDs “every day, all of us.” And they’re seeing more infected people.
The most common questions are about HPV, which can cause genital warts and is linked to several types of cancer.
All people ages 9 to 45 can get the HPV vaccine.
The vaccine is recommended for children at age 11. Alt said it has been proven to be more effective if a child gets the vaccine at a young age.
The intent is to vaccinate children before they are having sex, rather than waiting until they are sexually active.
Alt said most parents are “reluctant,” or may say their child is “not going to need that.” But HPV could affect them in the future. Males often don’t show symptoms, so if your daughter grows up and marries a man who is a carrier, having gotten this vaccine in her younger years could offer some security, he said.
Although it’s most often associated with cervical cancer, HPV is also linked to penile cancer. According to the CDC, it also can cause cancer of the vulva, vagina or anus, and cancer in the back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils.
There are now lots of options for contraception.
However, if you’re not using a condom, you can still get an illness, Alt said.
Anyone who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s remembers the sense of fear about AIDS, but Alt said younger people may not be thinking about it the same way.
Deb Roberts, director of nursing at Allen County Public Health, said people know that chlamydia or gonorrhea is treated with a one-time dose of a medication, so they may think, “if I get it, it’s an easy fix.”
But if that medication is taken multiple times, sooner or later “that medicine’s not going to work,” she said.
Young people between 15 and 24 acquire half of all new STDs, Alt said. One in four sexually active adolescent girls will have an STD, he said.
But just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re not susceptible, Jones said. A widow or widower in their 60s out dating again could be at risk.
Hancock Public Health does not offer STD testing, but the Allen County Health Department has a reproductive health and wellness clinic that is open to anyone.
The clinic can test for chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV, and can provide birth control. Hours are 8-11 a.m. Tuesdays for walk-ins, and Tuesday afternoons by appointment. Call 419-228-4457. The address is 219 E. Market St., Lima.
Surge in gonorrhea
In 2016, Allen County had 109 residents test positive for gonorrhea. In 2017, there were 171 cases in the county, and in 2018 there were 299.
Roberts said Allen County has one of the state’s higher rates, but it is a nationwide problem, not unique to this area.
She noted that often there aren’t symptoms, so “you may have an STD and not even know it.”
But even if you don’t feel sick, it can be damaging your body, Alt said. Women with chlamydia, for example, can have damage to their uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries, affecting their fertility.
And babies of mothers with certain infections can be stillborn, have low birth weight, be born blind or with a developmental delay.
Women with gonorrhea can develop fertility problems. The CDC website notes that men can also, in rare cases, become sterile from gonorrhea.
Rarely, untreated gonorrhea can spread to your blood or joints, which can be life-threatening, according to the CDC.
Syphilis, too, can cause serious complications if untreated. The CDC reports that “tertiary syphilis,” which most people with syphilis do not develop, can damage internal organs and result in death.
Syphilis can also spread to the eyes, causing vision problems or blindness, or to the brain and nervous system, which could cause paralysis or dementia.
In 2017, there were 1,019 new HIV diagnoses in Ohio. Watt said HIV is not curable, but is manageable by taking lifelong medication.
Watt said 1.1 million people in the United States are living with HIV, and one in seven doesn’t know they have it.
She suggested getting tested as a routine thing, like a dental appointment.
In 2019, there is still a huge stigma around HIV, she said. She heard from a woman who was burning her brother’s things, and who thought she could get HIV from his couch. You can’t get HIV this way, or through casual contact.
If you’re wondering if you should be tested for an STD, that’s a sign you probably should be, Watt said.
Also, get tested if you experience symptoms that are “anything out of the norm.”
“Know your body,” said Lea Rosenberg, clinical supervisor at Equitas Health. “Get tested.”
Jones said most people will talk about this topic openly, but “a lot of times they’re embarrassed.” She and her colleagues strive to be conversational about it, to make it OK to talk.
“We don’t lecture patients and we don’t judge. … Our goal is to make sure they’re healthy,” she said.
If you test positive for an STD, talk to your partner about treatment, because if you don’t, you can pass the illness back and forth. Jones also tests and treats men for STDs at the Women and Children’s Center.
Alt advocated for open communication between partners, and said this is something people “shouldn’t be ashamed of.”
Rosenberg said if you don’t know much about sex and condoms, there are ways to educate yourself. The CDC is a reputable source of information.
Health departments, too, are willing to educate people. Call any time they’re open, and ask to speak to a nurse.
Alt said Hancock Public Health welcomes questions, and has informational brochures. The address is 7748 County Road 140, Findlay, and the number is 419-424-7105.
The Ohio HIV/STD Hotline is 800-332-2437. If you’re embarrassed about the question you want to ask, go ahead and call anyway — they’ve heard it all, Watt said.