Let's talk about sex, seriously

Let's talk about sex, seriously

Increase in number of STD cases among local young people prompts new treatment program

By Michael Sullivan 01/30/2014

It was a one-night stand that Chris, 30, of Ventura would never forget. It was 2009 and he had met her out on the town, a friend of mutual friends. She was in her mid-30s and they had an instant connection, eventually ending the evening in the bedroom. After that night, they never spoke again.

Shortly thereafter, Chris, who has asked to remain anonymous, started seeing uncommon flare-ups of a medical condition he had had for many years. The flare-ups were bad and the situation was confusing for Chris. He started making the rounds with several specialists. It took two and a half years for one very dedicated doctor to diagnose him: Chris had HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

”I went to a specialist related to my condition, and there was something in this guy’s personality — he wouldn’t let it go,” Chris said, noting that he had been misdiagnosed twice before. “I had elevated liver enzymes, and he kept ordering test after test. I didn’t drink very much (so I knew it wasn’t related to that). I was checked for hepatitis and HIV and that’s how they found it.”

It could be said that Chris lucked out — and so did his partners since that one-night stand. Though they weren’t protected during intercourse, his partners tested negative for HIV. Also, Chris said his doctors have told him that if nothing bad happens with his health in the next two to three years, he will likely live as late as his 60s. Further, Chris has his once-daily pill covered by his health insurance. But it could have been worse, much worse.

“It would have been hugely expensive with no insurance, though there are programs to cover medication, subsidized by the government,” he said. “If that shit happened to me when I was still a student, I don’t know what would have happened.”

In Ventura County, health care practitioners are seeing an increase in cases of sexually transmitted diseases, specifically chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, in young people. According to Robert Levin, M.D., health officer at Ventura County Public Health, many new cases of HIV stay under the radar until the disease mutates to AIDS or carriers have unusual symptoms related to other medical conditions, such as what Chris experienced. But HIV cases are also up in the county. In 2012, Ventura County had 69 new HIV/AIDS cases reported, an increase of 13 cases over 2011, plus an additional 38 cases that represent people diagnosed elsewhere but who have moved to Ventura County and are being treated here.

For chlamydia, in 2012, there were 2,631 cases in Ventura County, with women aged 17-29, accounting for 61 percent of all reports; and last year there were approximately 2,430 cases. Ventura County chlamydia rates have almost doubled since 2003, according to the Ventura County Public Health agency.

Gonorrhea cases in Ventura County have also increased over the past few years. In 2012, there were 379 cases of gonorrhea, compared to 210 cases in 2011 and 170 in 2010. Initial estimates indicate that there were approximately 330 gonorrhea cases last year, which represents an increase over 2011 and 2010.

There has not been a significant increase in the number of syphilis cases reported in Ventura County over the past several years (53, 58 and 51, from 2010 to 2012, respectively) but the age at which cases are being diagnosed has become younger with most infections now being diagnosed in people in their 20s.

Levin emphasized his concerns over the increased number of cases for chlamydia, noting that there is a real concentration of chlamydia cases in women aged 17 to 19 and if left untreated can lead to infertility in women.

“One out of 15 in that age group has chlamydia,” he said.

Because of the increase in STD cases, specifically chlamydia, the Ventura County Public Health agency launched the Expedited Partner Therapy (EPT) program, which is designed to treat the sexual partners of people diagnosed with chlamydia, a common sexually transmitted disease (STD), as well as stem the tide of new infections. A person who is diagnosed with chlamydia can receive medication for his or her partner(s).

Though the agency is doing what it can to treat infected people, Levin looks to the source. He said that there are two main reasons for the increase:

“One, the answer is always that they weren’t wearing barrier prophylactics; these diseases won’t be transmitted if they had been. Two, more casual sex, more sex with multiple partners and more ways to find multiple partners. Websites and apps help people to find casual and anonymous (sex partners).”

With a quick search in the app store on any smartphone, applications can be found quickly for dating or casual sex. While some may appear to be typical dating sites, sites such as OkCupid, Date Hookup, POF (Plenty of Fish), Skout and one that makes no qualms about what it is InstaDo: Friend Zone is Over often lead to casual sex encounters, whether or not that was the ultimate goal of the user. These apps can also be found as regular websites.

Adina Nack, Ph.D., gender and women’s studies professor and director of the Center for Equality and Justice at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, has spent more than a decade researching and writing about the effects of contracting STDs. She said that U.S. cultural norms began to shift markedly toward normalizing casual sex in the late 1960s, so the increase in the number of sites and apps isn’t surprising. But what is somewhat surprising is that while casual sex may be condoned, the consequences of contacting STDs go beyond physical ramifications.

“As my research and book (Damaged Goods? Women Living with Incurable Sexually Transmitted Diseases) illustrate, the psychological and social consequences of STD infections are often more severe than the physiological realities. Due to the gendered double standard of sexual morality, STD stigma impacts women more negatively than men with regards to depression, anxiety, social ostracism and feeling that they are ‘damaged goods’ with regards to hopes of finding true love, marriage and becoming biological parents,” she said. “The realities are that destigmatizing STDs will likely improve the mental health and social well-being of millions of infected women and men — and will also lead to lower transmission rates, because STD stigma can increase infected individuals’ being in denial and/or failing to disclose their contagious infection to current and future sexual partners.”

To stem the tide of increased infections, those who are sexually active and aren’t regularly tested should watch for symptoms — unusual discharge or discomfort or pain during urination for chlamydia and gonorrhea; sores or ulcers around the genitals for syphilis. Unfortunately, Levin couldn’t really estimate the number of new cases of HIV infections because those who have recently contracted the disease may not even be aware of what they have for as long as a decade.

“It’s not easy to know results in recent changes in HIV,” he said. “A person can carry it for 10 years and not know what they have. They often don’t get tested and don’t get diagnosed.”

While it is nearly impossible to stop people from having casual sex, with abstinence programs proving to be a failure repeatedly, Nack said the problem really lies in education.

“In California and throughout the U.S. the vast majority of public schools do not implement evidence-based, comprehensive and age-appropriate sexual health education,” she said. “Until Americans mobilize their political power to change this aspect of public policy, we should not expect to see any significant improvements in the sexual health of teens and young adults in the U.S.”

The Ventura County Public Health agency is offering free HIV/AIDS testing on Feb. 7, from noon to 7 p.m., at the South Oxnard Clinic, 2500 S. C St. Ventura County Public Health HIV/AIDS program offers HIV testing by appointment, by calling 652-3342. Expedited Partner Therapy offer free chlamydia antibiotics and condoms, available through VCPH’s Communicable Disease program at 2240 East Gonzalez Road, room #220, Oxnard. For more information, call 981-5201.

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