TAMPA — Florida has a sexually transmitted disease problem. Hillsborough County has it worse.
Infectious syphilis cases have more than doubled in Florida over the past decade — and more than tripled in Hillsborough County in the same time frame, according to the Florida Department of Health. Cases of chlamydia in the state rose from 42,381 in 2003 to 77,851 in 2012 and more than doubled during that time in Hillsborough County to more than 7,100 cases, statistics show.
Statewide, the number of gonorrhea cases increased relatively slowly, growing by just under 600 to 19,551 in 2012. The bad news: Almost all of that increase is attributable to Hillsborough County, whose 2,157 recorded cases is about 500 more than in 2003.
The wrong-way trend concerns public health officials, particularly because most sexually transmitted diseases are fairly easily preventable.
“It’s scary, isn’t it?” said Ellen Daley, an assistant research professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. She specializes in health education and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
She pointed to the age group that makes up nearly 70 percent of the increases: adolescents through people in their mid-20s.
“Typically, certain age groups are more at risk,” she said. “Younger groups traditionally are engaged in more high-risk behaviors, more partners and they’re less likely to use protection.”
She blamed the lack of good sex education as the main reason why more people are contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
“That’s one concern, particularly here in Florida,” she said, “that there is just no good sex education in the schools, and that’s the group that doesn’t see the risk. A lot of kids, adolescents, think nothing can happen to them. They start to engage in sexual behaviors and they don’t think about the consequences. They may not see the consequences.
“The irony here is that the rates of adolescent pregnancy has dropped,” she said. “What do you make of that?”
Without sex education in schools, adolescents don’t have much choice where to learn about sexuality, she said.
“We are sending mixed messages,” Daley said. “We don’t want the kids to become sexually active too young, but we inundate them with sexual messages in the media. It’s a huge problem.”
She cited a study cited a few years ago in which parents were asked where they wanted their children to hear about sexuality. Most responded not at school.
“The next question was, “ ‘Would you rather have them learn it at home?’ ” and the overwhelming response was no,” Daley said.
Americans are uneasy talking about sex, but that needs to change if the numbers of sexually transmitted diseases are to drop, Daley said.
“It’s frustrating seeing those kinds of statistics,” she said. “Kids out there don’t know the risk they are taking and they don’t have the skills to access information, to protect themselves and to make wiser decisions.”
The Hillsborough County Health Department is trying to be proactive in the fight against sexually transmitted diseases. According to its annual report for 2012-13, the sexually transmitted disease clinic is the sole remaining public health unit in Tampa “where the public, regardless of socio-economic status can receive an examination, laboratory tests and treatment for a reasonable cost.” The staff last year treated 9,850 patients in 13,870 office visits.
Outreach also is part of the plan, the report said. Public health workers get out into the communities to test and treat people who may not have a chance to get to the office for screening. That program last year tested nearly 1,800 people, including 270 university students.
The main forms of prevention, according to the Centers for Disease Control, are being in a long-term monogamous relationship and/or using a condom. Syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea all can have serious long-term effects if not treated with antibiotics. As with most diseases, the earlier the disease is detected, the more effective the treatment.
Hillsborough County Health Department sexually transmitted disease program manager Carlos Mercado has dissected the rising numbers.
The jump in syphilis mostly is among the gay male population, he said. He said a main factor in the spread of the disease is that if a man comes in for screening and treatment, he often is hesitant to give the name of his partner.
“They are very concerned about their partner’s privacy,” he said. “But we also are concerned in public health about this.”
In many cases, he said, infected clients don’t know the names of their casual sex partners.
The health department is implementing an outreach program through which people are screened and treated, he said. Presentations at the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa are planned this fall and a full time health-care worker is stationed at the county jail.
Still off limits are public high schools, he said.
“We’re not allowed into the schools,” he said.
Continued awareness is key in stemming the trend, Mercado said.
“People need to pay closer attention and understand this issue,” he said. “The main thing is to get tested and know your status.”
In the United States, millions have been treated for chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2012 across the nation, 1.4 million cases of chlamydia were treated; 335,000 cases of gonorrhea and nearly 16,000 cases of syphilis.