Malheur County Health Department statistics show certain sexually transmitted diseases increased from 2019 to 2020. (The Enterprise/File).

ONTARIO – While the public health focus for the past year was on Covid, certain sexually transmitted diseases jumped in Malheur County.

Cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV increased last year over 2019 and there may be more cases of sexually transmitted diseases that remain undetected in the county, said local health officials.

Social stigma and the onset of Covid hampered testing for the diseases, giving the Malheur County Health Department a blurred view of the efforts to reduce the spread of chlamydia and gonorrhea.

According to health department, of 405 reports of disease infections in 2020, 315 – or 78% – were sexually transmitted diseases. There were 204 chlamydia cases reported in 2019 and 214 cases in 2020.

There were 23 cases of gonorrhea reported by the health department in 2019 and 91 in 2020.

There were three cases of HIV reported by the health department in 2018 and five recorded in 2020.

The statistics are alarming, said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

“We know access to testing was down in 2020 so it is saying these numbers are not a true comparison of the previous years. It means chlamydia is probably not down and that means we have a lot more gonorrhea in our community than in previous years,” said Poe.

Covid stymied the health departments most vital tool – testing – for dealing with sexually transmitted diseases, said Poe.

“Our office was closed to the public much of the time and things that were not urgent were postponed while we did Covid,” said Poe.

That means, she said, that many people were not “accessing their primary care or sexual health care if they could postpone it because of Covid,” said Poe.

“All of that contributes to less health care overall. Which means fewer people are being tested which means the people who are positive for a sexually transmitted disease are not being treated unless they know they are infected,” said Poe.

Gonorrhea - the second most commonly reported notifiable disease in the U.S. - is caused by a bacterium and the infection can include the genitals, mouth or rectum.

Gonorrhea symptoms are more obvious than those caused by chlamydia. 

In women, untreated gonorrhea can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, an infection of the upper female reproductive system that can impair fertility.

Chlamydia, also caused by a bacterium, is common and most people do not know they are infected because they do not experience symptoms.

Poe said both diseases are easy to detect through a urine test.

Poe said health officials noticed another recent troubling attribute linked to sexually transmitted diseases.

“The number of people who had separate entries for the same infection and the number of people with more than one STI, those numbers have jumped,” said Poe.

Poe also said a “large number of these STIs were found in teenagers and young adults.”

“That speaks to the urgency and importance of comprehensive sex education that is medically sound and gives people the knowledge to keep themselves safe,” said Poe.

Education is key, said Poe.

“We know sex education not only delays pregnancy but also delays the age when people start having sex. Sex education is really not debatable about what works. We know it works,” said Poe.

Angie Gerrard, communicable disease nurse for the health department, said there is no clear answer as to why some sexually transmitted disease cases jumped in the county.

“One factor that we experience that many other rural Oregon counties do not is really being an extension of the Boise metro area. Our rates are certainly affected by what happens in more populous nearby counties,” said Gerrard.

Gerrard said the health department uses several different approaches to cut down on such diseases.

“We send out notices to local providers when we see a significant change in the case rates and when new guidance comes out from the CDC regarding recommended testing and treatment strategies,” said Gerrard.

Gerrard said for each case of sexually transmitted disease reported, the health department attempts to contact the individual for an interview where they are asked if they “were also tested for other STIs as well as verifying that they received treatment and facilitating treatment if they have not,” said Gerrard.

Gerrard said the health department also asks someone who tested positive about recent partners to “try to ensure that they also receive appropriate treatment.”

Gerrard said that “these infections can be present in a person’s body for some time without manifesting any symptoms.”

Testing and treatment for a sexually transmitted disease is easy, said Poe.

“The health department has confidential free services for all ages. No one examines you. No one touches your body. It is very private. We want to make sure people who are sexually active are safe and healthy and have the tools they need to be so,” said Poe.

Medication to treat such diseases is free, said Poe.

“We also have expedited partner therapy where for free we will be able to treat someone’s partner even without testing them,” said Poe. Poe said typically more women than men seek testing.

“Which is really unfortunate because it takes both partners to be tested to know what the risk is,” said Poe.

Avoiding a sexually transmitted disease is also easy, said Poe, either through abstinence or the use of a condom.

Poe said residents should pay attention to the rising number of sexually transmitted diseases locally.

“People need to know there is a risk and a higher risk in their community. It should be a concern if you are sexually active,” said Poe.

News tip? Contact Pat Caldwell at [email protected] .

Previous coverage:

Chlamydia cases high in Malheur County, officials say

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