Cases of gonorrhea in Utah are on the rise, but the cause of the increase remains unclear.
According to the Utah Department of Health, cases increased nearly 400 percent between 2011 and 2014. And there is a sharp divide in the increase between males and females.
“In the same time period we had a 296 percent increase among males, where we had a 717 percent increase among females,” said Joel Hartsell, at STD epidemiologist for Utah Department of Health.
Hartsell said understanding why and how cases are on the rise could mean the difference between a women being able to have children or not. Around 50 percent of women with the infection won’t immediately show symptoms—sometimes for months. This can allow the infection to grow into something called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, which can make a woman infertile. During this asymptomatic period, a women could also be spreading the disease without knowing it.
So why are numbers on the rise? Hartsell said one reason is that people between the ages of 15 and 25 aren’t practicing safe sex.
“Recent numbers from the CDC estimated that roughly 40 to 60 percent of youth do not use condoms,” Hartsell said.
Why the numbers differ between males and females is more difficult to suss out, however.
“We conducted a supplemental survey this past April through about September where we looked at just some additional risk factors that may be causing this. We looked at anything from insurance to substance use to sex work, casual partners, anonymous partners, and so there were significant differences between males and females,” Hartsell said. “When you looked at males, males were more likely to claim casual or anonymous sex partners than females, whereas females were more likely to claim a history of meth use or incarceration.”
Hartsell said even once the risk factors are determined, it can still be difficult to pinpoint the cause, since the survey results varied significantly between different parts of the state and among demographics such as age and ethnicity.
One possible explanation for the increase is a lack of funding for groups that treat sexually transmitted infections.
Heather Stringfellow is the vice president for public policy at the Planned Parenthood Association of Utah. She said the organization’s federal funding through a program called the Infertility Prevention Project has been cut.
“With the Infertility Prevention Project it used to be that we could use the federal dollars to provide treatment for that person and their partner. But we are able to do neither at this point. They would need to help offset that cost themselves,” Stringfellow said. “It may be that people are going untreated. They’re not coming in for testing because it’s hard to afford it and it would seem like that would be associated with the rise in positive rates.”
Stringfellow said getting the state to back funding for testing and treatment could be a way to start bringing the gonorrhea numbers back under control.
“Currently we don’t have any state funding that goes towards that. The Utah Department of Health only uses federal funding for that, so it seems like a good place to start,” Stringfellow said.
Depending on funding and education, it may be a while before gonorrhea is under control in the state. Hartsell said he doesn’t foresee the number of cases going down any time soon.