Reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases in Kansas City, Missouri, rose last year, in some cases dramatically, in part due to increased testing and outreach by health authorities.
Preliminary data from the Kansas City Health Department shows a nearly 27 percent increase in reported cases of gonorrhea, 8 percent in chlamydia and 7.6 percent in syphilis.
The figures reflect national trends, with reported STDs reaching an unprecedented high in the United States in 2015.
“I don’t know if you’d call it a spike, because we’re also expanding our reach in screening,” says Sarah Martin-Anderson, an official with the KC health department. “The majority of STD cases are still undiagnosed and untreated.”
“But at the same time,” she says, “you’re still seeing an increase nationally, specifically in chlamydia and syphilis.”
Among the more notable Kansas City statistics:
- For the first time since 2011, early syphilis reports among white residents outnumbered those of blacks.
- Reported cases of gonorrhea rose in all age groups but soared among teenagers aged 15-19 by 57.4 percent.
- Chlamydia accounted for the majority of STDs, growing to 4,525 reported cases in 2016 from 4,156 in 2015, an increase of 8.2 percent.
“You actually have more males being diagnosed with chlamydia than usual since more men are getting that screening,” says Lesha Dennis, an epidemiology specialist with the health department.
Dennis says that whereas most chlamydia screening used to take place at health facilities like Planned Parenthood, which provides annual exams to women, now more private doctors are testing men “and that has helped the numbers go up.”
Since the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, more private providers have been offering routine STD screenings, which has helped identify more people with STDs.
Kansas City Councilman Quinton Lucas, who serves on the neighborhood committee that oversees the Kansas City Health Department, says the rising STD numbers are cause for concern. He says a certain laxness has set in when it comes to sexually transmitted infections.
“In part it’s an individual responsibility, but also we have to keep getting the message across that using protection matters,” he says. “I think a lot of those things that were social/cultural flashpoints in the 1990s – condoms in the schools and all of that – we’ve moved away from the conversation and I think that’s to our detriment.”
Lucas says the growing popularity of dating and hookup apps like Tinder also have contributed to the rise in STDs.
“The apps have been part of it. And of course there’s also the issue that older people are having sex more and not likely to use protection as much,” he says.
“I know this is incredibly controversial,” he adds, “but I think making condoms readily available, as available as we possibly can, probably another awareness campaign (is important). The way we can change this is through reminding people from the time they become sexually active of the importance of safe sex practices.”
Dennis, the health department epidemiology specialist, says that in 2014, about half the cases were among men who had sex with men “and specifically African-American males.”
“This year (2016) I would say we probably have maybe only 35 percent men who have sex with men,” she says. “The rest have been heterosexuals, more in the general population.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis go undiagnosed and unreported. And as the CDC notes, other STDs, such as human papillomavirus and herpes simplex virus – are not routinely reported at all.
The CDC estimates that nearly 20 million new sexually transmitted infection occur annually in the U.S., half among people aged 15-24.
“The positive,” says Councilman Lucas, “is that we’re doing a better job, particularly with the black community … The negative is that, in a way, a more diffused white community has been harder for us to reach, frankly. When you look at our white population, and particularly at-risk population – younger persons and others – we’ve got to find a better way to target our at-risk community. And I think that’s not unique to Kansas City.”
Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.