Sexually transmitted diseases rose to another record high in Minnesota last year, with double-digit increases in syphilis and gonorrhea, two infections that can have severe health consequences if left undetected, state health officials said Thursday.
The increases come at time when teen pregnancy rates are on the decline and the number of new HIV infections has fallen slightly — suggesting that sexually active Minnesotans are taking some precautions but lack awareness about the dangers of some commonly spread STDs.
Compounding the problem is that some of the diseases produce few or no symptoms at the time of infection, which increases the chances that they will be passed on unknowingly to others through unprotected sex.
Minnesota saw double-digit increases last year in cases of syphilis, which jumped 30 percent, as well as gonorrhea, which rose 25 percent.
“The percentage increases in syphilis and gonorrhea are really concerning,” said Dr. Nicholas Vogenthaler, an infectious disease physician at Hennepin County Medical Center and medical director of the Red Door Clinic, an STD testing site.
“This often involves folks who are a bit younger and more difficult to engage in routine health care,” he said. “We have to make sure we do a good job providing them accessible services outside of the normal health care choices.”
Chlamydia, by far the most prevalent infection passed through sexual activity, increased 7 percent. With nearly 22,700 cases last year, it has exploded over the past decade, posting a 71 percent increase since 2006.
Overall, STD infections rose 10 percent for the year, with notable increases among people who use drugs, particularly heroin, opiates and methamphetamine.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger called the numbers a cause for “urgent concern” in a statement released Thursday morning.
Ehlinger also warned that funding pressure on public health budgets could impair the state’s ability to track and prevent future cases. “If funding for the prevention of infectious disease in Minnesota continues to be reduced as we have seen in recent years, we will not be able to put an end to these rising infection rates,” he said.
Health educators say that raising awareness about the health consequences of STDs — as well as the ease of getting tested — are key to stopping the spread.
Face to Face Health & Counseling center in St. Paul recently worked with students at St. Paul College to raise awareness about chlamydia and encourage testing. “A lot of people didn’t even know that it exists,” said Lynda Bennett, the center’s executive director.
So they created a campaign called “Chlamydia is not a flower,” partly because some people mistake the name of the disease for something more congenial.
“We wanted to reduce the stigma of getting tested,” Bennett said. “Testing doesn’t require you to give a quart of blood. It is a simple process that is painless.” Chlamydia testing does, however, require a urine sample. So to encourage testing they paired it with free pizza.
If left untreated, chlamydia in women can cause infertility, chronic pelvic pain and tubal pregnancies. In men, it can lead to urethral infection and swollen or tender testicles.
In Minneapolis a group known as CRUSH — Community Restoring Urban Youth Sexual Health — is also trying to raise awareness and encourage regular annual STD testing. It uses a youth council of about 20 volunteers to spread the message.
“They like to listen to people that look like them and go through the same things like them,” said Trina Pearson, a coalition co-chair. “The only way to know your status is to get tested,” she said. “You need to know what is going on with your body.”
Noting that the decrease in teen pregnancy could be partly driven by newer types of contraception, Pearson said she encourages that younger people be taught how to properly use a condom to prevent STD spread.
State officials have numbers on the cases of chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhea because all positive lab tests must be reported to the state Health Department. Some STDs, such as herpes or HPV, human papillomavirus, are not reported to the state.
In a related report Thursday, the state also released numbers on new HIV and AIDS infections. In 2016, 290 new infections were reported, down from last year’s new-case count of 298. Since 2006, the number of new cases has hovered around 300 per year, but the number of patients who are living with the disease has steadily increased with treatment advances.