Sexually transmitted diseases are reaching record highs in Montana, state health officials warn.
“This is very concerning,” said Dana Fejes, Department of Public Health and Human Services STD/ HIV program manager.
The soaring STD trend is part of a nationwide trend. Syphilis and gonorrhea reports are the highest nationwide since 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gonorrhea rates have been increasing over the last seven years. There were 1,563 Montana cases in 2019. That’s a steep increase from the 1,179 cases in 2018, which was a 52% increase from the 782 in 2017, according to government reports.
Hill County reported 31 cases of gonorrhea and Blaine County reported 28 in 2019. Yellowstone County, home of Montana’s most populated city, Billings, reported the highest number of cases with 440.
Gonorrhea can infect men and women. It can cause infections in the genitals, rectum and throat. It is most common among those ages 15-to-24. People can contract gonorrhea by having vaginal, anal, or oral sex with someone already infected. A pregnant woman with gonorrhea can pass on the infection to her baby during childbirth.
DPHHS reports that American Indians are disproportionately affected by gonorrhea, accounting for 40% of total cases while comprising only 6.6% of the Montana population. Broader STD screening at Indian Health Services and tribal clinics facilities may contribute to the higher incidence rate in the native population, officials said. In other words, more screening may have led to more reported cases.
Whites, which make up about 89% of the total Montana population, reportedly account for 49% of the infections.
Reports of syphilis and chlamydia cases are also rising. There were 63 reported cases on syphilis in 2019, according to DPHHS. In 2018, that number was 45.
However, Hill and neighboring counties do not appear to struggle with syphilis and chlamydia.
Cascade County reported a significantly larger number of syphilis infections — 35 — than all others. Yellowstone County has 11 reported cases.
Many of those affected with syphilis are men who have sex with men, DPHHS reports. All told, 73% of syphilis patients are male, 69% of which are men who have sex with men.
Forty-two percent of people infected with syphilis reported they had sex while intoxicated.
Syphilis can cause serious health problems if it’s not treated, including sores and skin rashes, professionals. said. The infection shows itself in primary, secondary, latent and tertiary stages, with different signs and symptoms associated with each stage of infection.
Chlamydia is the most common reported STD in the U.S. In 2018, there were nearly 5,000 reported cases in Montana, most of them by women, ages 20 to 24, “partially due to screening recommendations for females,” according to DPHHS.
Most people with chlamydia have no symptoms, which may not appear until several weeks after having sex with an infected partner. Chlamydia can damage the reproductive system even if symptoms are absent.
As with reported gonorrhea cases, chlamydia affects American Indians disproportionately, with 23% of reported cases, while whites make up for 69% of the cases. Again, DPHHS reported, the higher reported number among natives may be the result of broader screening.
Tellingly, social media plays a role in the increase of STDs.
“Social media platforms and anonymous sex have further complicated the ability to reach partners to get them tested and treated. This is a necessary step to stop further infections,” public health officials said. “To keep up with the increase of online dating, local and state partners are reaching out on social media to urge sexually active persons to get tested for STDs and stay safe.”
DPHHS public health officials remind the public that STDs are preventable. While some activities can pose greater risks, there are steps you can take to stay healthy:
- Talk to your health care provider about STD testing. Take charge of your own health, get tested and treated correctly. Find free or low-cost testing locations at GetTested.MT.gov.
- Learn about STDs and how to avoid them at STDFree.MT.gov.
- The most reliable way to avoid infection is to not have sex.
- Reduce your number of partners and talk about sexual health with your partners.
- Use protection correctly every time. Synthetic non-latex condoms can be used for those who have latex allergies.
- Visit your local STD clinics, outreach workers or health departments to learn more, grab some free stuff and get the conversation started with friends.
Visit DPHHS on Facebook, like and share our Public Health in the 406 #GetTestedMT messages.
Below are local health providers that test for STDs:
- Bullhook Community Health Center in Havre. Learn more here
- Hill County Family Planning in Havre. Learn more here.
- Hill County Health Department in Havre. Learn more here.
- Rocky Boy Health Center on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. Learn more here.
- Sweet Medical Center in Chinook. Learn more here.
- Fort Belknap Tribal Health on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Learn more here.
- Sweet Medical Center in Harlem. Learn more here.
Email Paul Dragu at firstname.lastname@example.org