Sexually-transmitted diseases account for the greatest proportion of infectious diseases in Linn County.
That’s according to a new report from Linn County Public Health that gives a countywide assessment of health status and health risks on everything from chronic and infectious diseases to homicide and suicide rates.
Linn County’s syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea rates are 579 cases per 100,000 residents, which is higher than the state rate of 435.2 cases per 100,000 residents.
In 2012, there were 986 cases of chlamydia, 230 cases of gonorrhea and six cases of syphilis in Linn County. And while the gonorrhea rate in the United States has been decreasing from 2000 to 2012, it has been increasing in Iowa.
“We need to be aggressive as a community,” said Pramod Dwivedi, Linn County Public Health director. “It is profoundly important to take note of these and do something about it.”
Dwivedi said while Linn County Public Health does not have a campaign planned, it is working with the Sexual Health Alliance of Linn and Johnson Counties, a group of organizations and individuals working to educate the public about safe sex and distribute free condoms.
Dwivedi said the alliance has targeted populations at a greater risk of contracting an STD, including young adults, the gay community, those with substance abuse problems and those with multiple sexual partners.
Linn County Public Health also will address the rising STD rates in its community health improvement plan, an annual report that assesses the county’s health status and builds a plan to improve priority areas.
Age and gender disparities
Teenagers and young adults between 15 to 24 have significantly higher rates of STDs than those in older age groups. Statewide, teenagers account for 26 percent of chlamydia cases and 20 percent of gonorrhea cases, according to a report from Eyes Open Iowa, a Des Moines-based group that advocates for adolescent sexual health.
“It speaks to the work we need to do,” said Kristin Fairholm, executive director of Eyes Open Iowa. In 2012, the gonorrhea rate among teenagers 15 to 19 years old and adults 20 to 24 years old was 484 cases per 100,000 and 533.5 per 100,000, respectively.
Fairholm said it’s important that teens receive education about STDs, how to avoid them and how to treat them.
“This is vital health information,” she said.
Teenagers 15 to 19 years old accounted for 1,392 diagnosed chlamydia cases and 361 diagnosed gonorrhea cases in Linn County from 2008 to 2012, according to Eyes Open Iowa data.
This averages to 278 cases of chlamydia and 72 cases of gonorrhea each year, which gives Linn County the ninth-highest chlamydia rate and the third-highest gonorrhea rate in the state, Fairholm said.
Linn County Public Health wants to reverse these trends. The organization has set a goal to reduce by 10 percent by 2020 the number of teenagers and young adults with chlamydia and gonorrhea.
For chlamydia cases this translates to improving rates from 412 per 100,000 residents in 2010 to 371 per 100,000 residents, and for gonorrhea cases that means shrinking the number from 112 cases per 100,000 residents in 2010 to 101 cases per 100,000 residents.
What’s more, females have higher STD rates when compared with males — making up 70.2 percent of chlamydia cases and 66.1 percent of gonorrhea cases in Linn County, according to the public health department.
But Heather Meador, the county’s senior public health nurse, cautioned that these numbers don’t tell the whole story, as females are generally tested more frequently than males.
Because STDs are often asymptomatic, meaning infected individuals often don’t show any signs of the disease, they can go untreated.
Women frequently will find out they have chlamydia or gonorrhea when they go in for their yearly check up, are pregnant or to get birth control, she said.
“There’s also a fear factor for males,” Meador said. “The test used to be uncomfortable, so they would wait until they showed symptoms before they got tested.”
But STDs cause damage to the body in other ways, including joint pain or scarring of reproductive organs.
“It’s important to remember when looking at STD rates by gender, that physiological and social factors along with greater testing rates among females contribute to gender disparities in STD rates when comparing rates among females to males,” Fairholm said.