The news that the spread of HIV has declined in Sonoma County — if only slightly — since 2008 is certainly encouraging. But it’s unlikely to get the attention it deserves given the disturbing accompanying report that nearly all other forms of sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise in the North Bay.
And not by a small amount either.
One health care professional called the increases “astronomical.”
As Staff Writer Martin Espinoza reported this week, the rates of sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis skyrocketed between 2008 and 2016 in Sonoma County.
Chlamydia cases, for example, jumped from 910 to 1,893. Gonorrhea cases increased from 69 to 554. In 2008, Sonoma County had only four reported cases of syphilis. Eight years later, it had 63.
Why? Nobody seems to know for sure. But it’s easy to make a few good guesses.
Health care experts point to the rapid rise in websites and apps like Tinder that are one-stop shops for people — particularly young people — to date or “hook up,” i.e. finding a partner for casual sex.
As Dr. Gary Green, head of the infectious disease department at Kaiser Santa Rosa Medical Center noted, “Technology has made sex incredibly convenient.”
What’s probably another factor is that the data about sexually transmitted diseases are getting better given that more people are covered by health insurance than in 2008 thanks to the passage of the Affordable Care Act. As a result more Sonoma County residents are getting health screenings, and thus more cases of sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, are being reported. The number of uninsured Sonoma County residents reportedly dropped from 64,000 in 2013 to 31,000 in just two years.
But the biggest problem is us. We, as a county, have become less vigilant and are losing our fear of the risks of casual, unprotected sex.
Some of it is no doubt due to the success of treatments and medications, particularly the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, by individuals who are HIV-negative but engage in high-risk sexual behavior.
But these types of drugs don’t prevent other types of sexually transmitted diseases, the kind that are best prevented with “barrier methods” such as the use of condoms.
Not long ago, many if not most of the messages that went out from health care professionals in the community had to do with the importance of safe sex. But Sonoma County’s Deputy Health Officer Dr. Karen Holbrook said it best when she noted that there’s now a general lack of understanding of the importance of using a condom.
In addition to people not understanding the risks of getting STIs, there also are people who “don’t understand that the partners they’re having sex with are at risk for all of these infections,” she said.
Gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis are treatable, but they still come with real dangers. If untreated, infections can lead to such problems as pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility among women as well as sterility among men.
Sonoma County residents need to have more open and honest discussions about the risks of unprotected sex. We’ve gotten lax about the latex. And it’s showing in numbers like these.