Oregon County Gives Away Free Condoms During Holiday Season To Combat Rising STD Rates

Oregon County Gives Away Free Condoms During Holiday Season To Combat Rising STD Rates

In the Umatilla County Health Department lobby, decorated with all kinds of Christmas ornaments and cheer, there reads a sign “FREE CONDOMS.”

The department isn’t about spreading Christmas cheer with free condoms; it’s the effort of the department to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. is currently experiencing a steep rise in the number of STDs. The report notes that the number of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis cases have gone up significantly.

Tim Menza handles Oregon’s HIV/STD prevention program. He said Oregon is facing the same trend as the rest of the nation. There were 6,000 gonorrhea cases in 2017. In 2000, they had just 1,000 cases of the disease. The number of gonorrhea cases is troubling, as the CDC reported it had 555,000+ cases of the disease in 2017, with an increase of 75 percent from 2009. The increase affected all races and ethnic groups as well as both genders.

If untreated, gonorrhea can cause arthritis, infertility, scarring, brain lining inflammation and heart valve damage. When the gonorrhea rankings came out in 2017, Umatilla County was the third highest in Oregon.

Umatilla County Public Health Department Director Joe Fiumara said the rates are still low, but they are rising.

The state is also seeing a widespread outbreak of syphilis and chlamydia cases like the rest of the nation with chlamydia being the most prevalent of the three. According to the CDC, there were roughly 1.7 million chlamydia cases in 2017 with just 1.6 million in 2016. Syphilis cases rose to more than 30,000 cases in 2017 from just under 17,500 in 2016.

Many people believed in the 1990s that syphilis was eradicated until its return.

When it comes to chlamydia and syphilis cases, Umatilla County is bucking the trend – there have been just 264 cases of chlamydia this year while there were 323 last year. There have been no reported cases of syphilis this year, but seven in 2017.

Of course, not all cases are being reported, as some people don’t even know they’ve been infected with an STD.

Fiumara said it’s not uncommon for a person with an STD to have no symptoms. They could have the disease before even experiencing a problem for it. Fiumara encourages people to get screened regularly, especially those at risk.

Menza said the rise in STDs is the result of several things:

  • Improved treatment for HIV/AIDS has eased people’s fears of dying from the disease. Thus, they are more likely to take riskier chances with their sexual health.
  • Federal funding has been cut significantly the last few years for STD screening and treatment. There are less disease intervention specialists employed to help find people with positive STDs.

Umatilla County’s health department employs a communicable disease nurse who reaches out to the infected person through text or phone. Fiumara said the nurse advises the patient about the risk factors and gives them a chance to seek treatment. They also get partner information in the hopes to have them tested.

Chlamydia and gonorrhea testing and treatment are pretty inexpensive, but syphilis does cost more. Fiumara said nobody is turned away even if they cannot pay.

Of course, Fiumara said prevention is the best way to deal with STDs head-on. He said the condoms at the Umatilla County Public Health Department are there to protect individuals from being infected with an STI… not for Christmas decorations.

He acknowledges that they’re not 100 percent safe, but as close as one can get. He urges people to get screened regularly through their county health department.

Written by Mark Riegel, MD

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