Sexually Transmitted Diseases: The Silent Epidemic

The incidence of gonorrhea among 15- to 19-year-olds in upstate New York exceeds the state average, with 377 cases per 100,000 teens compared to 314 cases per 100,000 statewide. That’s just one of the disturbing facts in a new report on sexually transmitted diseases issued today by Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

“STDs affect upstate New Yorkers of every age, sex, race and socioeconomic status,” said Dr. Marybeth McCall, chief medical officer, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “Yet because of the stigma surrounding the diseases, it’s the one epidemic no one talks about.”

Determining health care costs directly related to all STDs is difficult, as experts believe many cases go undiagnosed and/or unreported. The most recent nationwide look at the economic burden of STDs upon teens and young adults ? conducted in 2000 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ? placed the lifetime cost for 15- to 24-year-olds at $6.5 billion.

The Excellus BlueCross BlueShield study, Reported Sexually Transmitted Diseases, analyzed the rates of infection of the five most commonly reported STDs among teens and adults ? chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV and AIDS ? during the period 2005 to 2007.

• Chlamydia was the most commonly reported STD across upstate New York, where rates ranged from a low of 181 infections per 100,000 people in the Utica region to a high of 407 per 100,000 in the Finger Lakes region.

• Reported rates for gonorrhea, the second most commonly reported STD, varied across regions. The highest reported rates were among teens in the Western New York region, at 583 infections per 100,000 people, and the lowest were in the Utica region, at 84 per 100,000. Rates for the total population mirrored the incidence among teens, with the highest reported rates in the Finger Lakes and Western New York regions and the lowest rate in the Utica region.

• The reported rate of syphilis infections per 100,000 people varied across upstate regions, from 0.9 in the Southern Tier and Utica to 2.1 in the Finger Lakes region.

• HIV and AIDs rates were relatively low in upstate New York. The Finger Lakes region had the highest reported rate for newly diagnosed HIV, with 9.5 infections per 100,000, while the lowest rate was in the Utica region at 3.9 per 100,000. Similar rates of reported AIDs infections prevailed, with the highest rate in the Finger Lakes region at 9.3 per 100,000 and the lowest in the Utica region at 4.7 per 100,000.

STDs are primarily transferred through sexual activity. Some are passed from mother to child during pregnancy, at birth or through breastfeeding. Most STDs show no signs or symptoms, so testing is often the only way to diagnose infection.

“Discussions around sexual health are never easy or comfortable,” said McCall. “Until we start increasing awareness around the importance of regular screenings for at-risk individuals, many undiagnosed infected individuals will put their health at risk by going untreated and will threaten the health of others by unknowingly spreading their infection.”

Bacterial infections, such as gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis can be treated and often cured with antibiotics. Viral infections, such as HIV/AIDS, genital herpes, hepatitis B and human papillomavirus (HPV) are incurable but can be managed with medication.

Left untreated, STDs can lead to increased risk of HIV transmission, pregnancy complications, infertility and reproductive tract cancers.

The CDC recommends that individuals protect themselves from STDs by practicing abstinence or limiting sexual partners, using condoms consistently and correctly, and getting screened regularly.

“The takeaway from this report is that there are serious long-term health consequences resulting from undiagnosed and untreated STDs,” said McCall. “It’s time to stop being embarrassed and start talking ? especially to young people ? about safe sex and, if appropriate, about getting tested and treated.”

A full library of reports and fact sheets, including the report on STDs, is available on the Web by going to excellusbcbs.com and clicking on “About Us” at the bottom of the page. Then select “Fact Sheets, Surveys & Reports.” Topics include high blood cholesterol, leading causes of death, diabetes, smoking and obesity.