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Utah experiences 'significant' increase in STD cases in 2012

Published: Sunday, April 21 2013 11:35 a.m. MDT

Cases of some sexually transmitted diseases increased dramatically statewide in 2012, and the trend has continued through the start of 2013, according to the Utah Department of Health. Cases of gonorrhea grew an estimated 74 percent, and instances of syphilis nearly doubled last year, according to the state's Bureau of Communicable Disease Control.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Cases of some sexually transmitted diseases increased dramatically statewide in 2012, and the trend has continued through the start of 2013, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Cases of gonorrhea grew an estimated 74 percent, and instances of syphilis nearly doubled last year, according to the state's Bureau of Communicable Disease Control.

"It's hard to measure the true numbers, but the increase is statistically significant enough to know that there is an increase among the general population," said Lynn Beltran, an epidemiology supervisor for the Salt Lake County Health Department.

The troubling trend is pushed in part by increased testing, said Lynn Meinor, program manager at the Bureau of Communicable Disease Control.

"That's part of the numbers we see," Meinor said.

But the large percentage increase also suggests an actual uptick in the number of people contracting STDs.

Officials also reported a 7.6 percent increase in statewide chlamydia cases in 2012, but didn't report a statistically significant increase in HIV cases. Instances of STDS overall increased an estimated 11 percent.

Multiple studies in Canada and the United States have predicted in recent months that gonorrhea is becoming an "unbeatable" disease because some of its strains are mutating and adapting to medication.

The Salt Lake County Health Department has an added sense of urgency to prevent the trend from escalating, Beltran said.

"It's mutated so frequently that it's on the verge of becoming an untreatable infection," she said. "We're trying to explain the seriousness of the situation to people. It's definitely one of our priorities."

Gonorrhea cases similarly surged between 2002 and 2006, peaking at 888 reported cases. Responding to those record-setting levels, the Utah Department of Health increased its investigation into gonorrhea at the time and hired disease investigation specialists to build relationships with at-risk communities.

“They worked with not only the persons we knew were infected, but networked with their partners, bringing them in and getting them tested, treated and informed,” Meinor said. 

Cases began dropping significantly, to 277 in 2011, before rising again to an estimated 480-490 in 2012. Meinor said the department is considering hiring disease investigation specialists again to do more grass-roots education.

Utah health officials are also busy promoting STD Awareness Month, which is taking place across the country during April. Beltran urged sexually active Utahns to educate themselves about associated risks.

"It's important to go in for routine checkups, even if you think you're not at risk. It's a good idea for everyone," she said. "I also can't emphasize enough that parents educate their children about it.There's a lot of misinformation in our younger communities."

Steven Mickelson, director of personal and family health for the Utah County Health Department, said young people are most susceptible to ignore warnings about STDs and that communication breakdowns between sexual partners can lead to tragic consequences.

Those who have practiced abstinence or protected sex should never blindly assume their sexual partner has done the same, Mickelson said.

"Five years ago if you had (an STD), it was seen as your responsibility to reveal that," he said. "(But) the tables have turned, and you're expected to speak up and tell a potential partner if you don't have (one)."

When compared with the rest of the U.S., Utah has low incidences of sexually transmitted disease, ranking 39th out of 50 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A full statewide STD report for 2012 will not officially be released until May, but Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties — roughly two-thirds of the state's population — have completed their data collection.

E-mail: blockhart@deseretnews.com

Twitter: benlockhart89

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