Sexually transmitted infections are rising in Kansas, as in the rest of the country. Rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis are rising substantially, while rates of new HIV infections, after five years of falling, have now plateaued, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The reasons for the rising rates are unclear. CDC data shows teens are waiting longer to have their first sexual intercourse and are more likely than teens a generation ago to use contraception. However, they are also more likely to engage in oral and anal sex, and are less likely to use condoms when doing so than when they have vaginal intercourse.
The rise of dating apps that can make sex partners easier to find and more anonymous have also been blamed for the rise. Some of the increase may be attributed to more testing and diagnosis, a positive step.
Kansas has seen some particularly large increases in rural counties, which forces us to look critically at our health care infrastructure and sex education across the state. Budget-stretched county health departments and clinics are often the primary organizations responsible for STI testing and prevention. Kansas’ confounding failure to expand Medicaid has burdened health care providers around the state, particularly those who serve low-income Kansans.
For teens, age-appropriate sex education that encourages abstinence alongside information about contraception and sexual health is still one of the best ways to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy. Ample research now shows teens who participate in comprehensive sex education programs are less likely to have sex and more likely to use contraception if they do become sexually active.
Comprehensive sex education programs have been controversial, with some parents feeling sex education is best done at home. Sex education should come from parents, who are the primary source of values and morality for their children, but that should never stop medically accurate health information from being shared in public schools. Unsafe sex practices are a public health issue, with STI treatment for young people costing an estimated $6.5 billion in direct medical costs every year.
The good news is that the diseases measured by the CDC, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis, are all easily treatable with antibiotics when diagnosed. Untreated, however, these illnesses can lead to infertility and other serious health consequences. Many people do not know they are infected. Clinicians have also expressed concern about the rise of antibiotic resistant gonorrhea, which is becoming increasingly difficult to treat.
Fighting a national trend is challenging, but Kansas must do all we can to keep our young people healthy and safe.