By Kristen Barton, Amanda Castro-Crist and Lilly Quiroz
Since the number of syphilis cases in Lubbock County tripled in the first four months of 2016 compared to 2015, the State Health Department issued an outbreak alert and the Lubbock Board of Health created a committee in May to address the issue of STDs.
The alert was issued in April after 24 cases were discovered, compared to eight the year prior.
High rates of sexually transmitted diseases and infections are not a new phenomenon in Lubbock County. Katherine Wells, Lubbock public health director, said the county tends to have some of the higher rates in the state, especially for chlamydia and gonorrhea.
“Males have more severe symptoms for gonorrhea, so they tend to come in and get tested,” Wells said. “If you have pain or discharge or something, you’re going to go see a doctor or a nurse.”
The majority of chlamydia cases in Lubbock are 20 to 24-year-old women, while gonorrhea tends to be about that same age, in both males and females, Wells said. In general, the STD age range across the country tends to be young adults. In the syphilis outbreak, there were two significant demographics within the age range of 17 to 60-years-old.
“One is a younger group that’s reporting they’re using social networking to find their partners and that tends to be men who have sex with men,” Wells said. “There’s also an older group that are all reporting drug use, especially methamphetamines.”
Social networking apps like Grindr and Adam4Adam help identify other people who are seeking sexual encounters, Wells said. The result is easier access to multiple partners and an increase in the spread of disease.
Kimberly Simón, director of Risk Intervention & Safety Education (RISE) at Texas Tech University said while high-risk behaviors like having multiple partners and drug use can lead to the higher chance of contracting an STD or STI, an unwillingness to talk to a partner about sex precautions also contributes to the problem.
“Communication within your sexual relationship is the most important thing because you have to have all of the information to assess your level of risk,” Simón said.
Part of the discussion should include information about each partner’s sexual history and plans for each to be tested, Wells said.
“I think it’s really important for individuals to know that if they’re sexually active, they really should be tested at least once per year for STDs. If you have multiple partners, you should get tested more often,” Wells said. “The CDC recommends all sexually active women 25 or younger get tested for chlamydia.”
The city STD clinic, located at 806 18th St., is available to anyone who has signs or symptoms of a disease, or who just wants to get tested. A visit costs $20 and includes treatment, Wells said. It is a small price to pay to prevent long-term consequences, she said.
“People think ‘yuck’ with STDs, but they can also cause you to be infertile,” Wells said. “That’s really sad if someone had an STD when they were younger, never got treated, and then they’re 30 and married, want to have a baby and can’t.”
The committee created by the Board of Health in May hopes to address the lack of information in the community about STDs and testing in order to decrease the rates of STDs in Lubbock, Wells said.
“They’ve been looking at the possibility to obtain funding to do social media outreach, because a lot of the STD rates are attributed to online dating and some of these ‘hook-up’ apps,” Wells said. “We’re looking at best practices in different areas and the goal is to bring those back to the board of health and possibly make some recommendations to the city to make some changes.”
Wells said it will probably be another month or two before they present their recommendations, but they have been providing updates at each Board of Health meeting. The city is also working with local doctors to inform patients about STDs, the increases in syphilis and the importance of testing.
Simón said there are a lot of students who do not have a comprehensive sex education, including information about the lifelong effects. Students primarily use condoms to prevent pregnancies, rather than STIs.
“They don’t think about oral sex or anal sex because once you take away that threat of pregnancy, they don’t think about the continued threat of spreading diseases,” Simón said.
Condoms should still be used in other instances, Samuel Prien, a professor at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and director of the Clinical and Research Lab, the IVF Lab, and of Resident Research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology said. STIs and STDs do not differentiate between routes – they just want a way into the body, he said.
People also need to be taught not just to use condoms, but how to use them properly, Prien said.
“We had people demonstrate to us how to put a condom,” Prien said. “Sixty-six percent couldn’t do it correctly, male or female.”
Educating students and others about sex is a topic not many agree on, he said. Some groups push abstinence-only education while others want full-blown, comprehensive education.
“I will freely admit I support abstinence, but abstinence only works as long as you’re abstinent,” Prien said. “The moment you’re not, you’re exposed to all these things.”
Prien said age-appropriate sex-education exists for all ages and should start with children aged 8 or 9, who are taught about the functions of their bodies and appropriate contact with others. From there, the topics and content develop as they age.
“It’s not one discussion, it’s a continuous discussion,” Prien said.