Rise in STD infections exacerbated by stigma and lack of funding, health workers say – The Virginian-Pilot

CHESAPEAKE – Nischelle Buffalow stood among other Buffalow Family and Friends volunteers as those in need registered for health care and COVID-19 vaccinations and picked up food at noon Wednesday at a shopping complex in the South Norfolk.

His organization’s newest partnership provides condoms and information about sexually transmitted infections, with the Chesapeake Health Department, to stem a growing national problem.

“People will come to us, where they might not come to the health department, because the people know us,” she said. As she spoke, a line of cars snaked through the parking lot.

The rise of STIs and sexually transmitted diseases is the result of a storm of sometimes asymptomatic illnesses, the stigma of testing and public health funding needs, according to community and national health workers.

“This is the seventh year of record high levels of STDs across the country,” said Stephanie Arnold Pang, senior policy and government relations director for the National Coalition of STD Directors.

From 2016 to 2020, gonorrhea cases increased by 45%; 52% syphilis cases, according to Arnold Pang.

Congenital syphilis, which can cause miscarriages, stillbirths and other childhood malformations in women, has increased by 235%, she said. In Virginia, there were no such cases in 2011. It has risen to 15 cases in 2020, according to the most recent data from the Virginia Department of Health.

“And it’s completely preventable,” said Jenny Mahn, clinical and sexual health director for the National Coalition of STD Directors.

The number of STD cases also continues to rise in Virginia, according to the most recent health department data from 2020 and preliminary data from last year.

To accommodate the increase, additional funds were allocated to VDH through the American Rescue Plan Act. Virginia is expected to receive $4.5 million between last June and December 2025.

VDH has created 38 new jobs to strengthen screening officers and front-line STD coordinators. These new positions include one in Chesapeake, one in Norfolk, three in the Peninsula Health District, two in Portsmouth, one in the Three Rivers Health District, two in Virginia Beach and one in the Western Tidewater Health District.

National Coalition of STD Directors staff said federal funding should be made available not only for prevention, but also for STD clinics to bolster the efforts of health groups.

“We are not funding public health at the level we need,” Arnold Pang said.

The pandemic has stretched health services and organizations that provided any type of STD testing or care even thinner, as awareness and treatment for COVID-19 eclipsed the problem, according to Buffalow.

In South Norfolk, Buffalow said more funding could help boost their 100% volunteer operations to partner with more clinics and the health department. These expanded partnerships could help people who may be unknowingly carrying STDs or suffering the effects of an infection, she said.

“I think funding plays a role in everything,” Buffalow said.

This includes setting up more clinics in communities with an increase in STDS that can retain staff through reasonable workloads and fair compensation. Buffalo said it helps build trust in the community and can help eliminate the stigma associated with having or potentially having an STD. Transportation to clinics and money hassles with testing can also be a buffer to getting STDs treated, she said.

Black teens and young adults are most at risk of contracting STDs, according to national and VDH data.

In 2020, black Virginians accounted for approximately 60% of all new cases of gonorrhea.

According to Arnold Pang and Mahn.

Oana Vasiliu, director of STD prevention and surveillance for the Virginia Department of Health, said housing instability and poverty also played a role.

“All of these things can affect a person’s ability to access STI services that include prevention as well as care, testing and treatment,” she said.

The Eastern Health Region, which includes Hampton Roads, has had the highest number of STDs in Virginia, according to the most recent 2020 VDH data.

“We have people moving into the community, people visiting as tourists, we have a bunch of in and out,” said Choya Page, communicable disease supervisor for the Chesapeake Health District.

Overall, gonorrhea and syphilis cases are increasing across Virginia while chlamydia cases appear to have declined in 2020, but the decline is likely artificial, according to Vasiliu.

“We believe this is likely the result of a decrease in screening that has occurred throughout 2020,” she said.

In 2019, 47,450 cases of chlamydia were discovered in Virginia, while in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 40,068, a drop of more than 15%.

There were more than 14,400 cases of chlyamdia, a disease that can lead to permanent damage in the reproductive system of women, found among residents of the Eastern region in 2020. The region with the second highest number of cases was the central region, which includes Richmond, Piedmont and Southside health districts.

More than 40% of gonorrhea cases detected in Virginia in 2020 were in residents of the Eastern Health Region, according to VDH data. Gonorrhea is a common infection that affects the mucous membranes of the reproductive organs and areas of both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A complication of the infection is that it is asymptomatic for men, who could pass it on to women without even realizing they are carrying it. The infection is widespread and to defeat it, medication is needed.

But the high levels of gonorrhea and the one-size-fits-all approach to non-specific antibiotics helped the infection gain immunity, according to staff at the National Coalition of STD Directors.

“Gonorrhea has developed resistance to almost all the antibiotics we use for its treatment,” Mahn said. “It’s a threat to public health.”

The CDC recognized the growing resistance of gonorrhea to antibiotics as an “urgent health concern” in a video on its website.

In December 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services created the first National STI Strategic Plan as a “roadmap” to improve testing, treatment, and care for sexually transmitted infections at local levels, state and national by 2025, according to the HHS website.

Health district staff say efforts like Chesapeake’s to provide free condoms and information about open-to-all STD clinic services are one piece of the puzzle in solving the multiple challenges faced in combating the continuing surge. of infections.

The challenges are myriad and even as nuanced as how to track down a dating app user with a pseudonym to let them know they’re spreading an STD, Page said.

“STDs are a public health crisis and we need the commitment of all providers, individuals and all levels of government to fight it together,” said Arnold Pang.

Ian Munro, [email protected]

Comments are closed.