WASHINGTON – Maryland ranked in the top 20 states for a second year with the highest rates of Chlamydia and gonorrhea and placed fourth for syphilis, according to the latest data from the Maryland health department.
“We’ve been hovering in the top five (for syphilis) for the past few years,” said Barbara Conrad, sexually transmitted disease prevention division chief for the Maryland health department, who expects 2008 data in the next month.
Maryland ranked fifth for primary and secondary syphilis, second for congenital syphilis, 14th for Chlamydia and 18th for gonorrhea in 2006.
In 2007, Maryland had 345 cases of primary and secondary syphilis with a high concentration of cases in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.
Unprotected sex and lack of awareness, along with socioeconomic status and the use of alcohol and drugs, are chief causes of Maryland’s elevated sexually transmitted disease, or STD, rates, which are based on reported cases, said Conrad.
Data for 2007 showed Maryland dropping to 19th for gonorrhea and rising one spot to 13th for Chlamydia, both rates higher than the national average. There were more than 23,000 Chlamydia cases with nearly half from young people aged 15 to 24.
“It’s not all the 19-year-olds,” Conrad said.
STDs increase a person’s risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV, which the Maryland health department tracks separately.
“This is statewide; there is a need for information” for parents and children, Conrad said. “Sex education is not a given.”
Jan Arnold, health education resources teacher in Anne Arundel County said that the high schools teach eight lessons, out of 45, on abstinence-centered sexuality education with a lesson on contraception.
“We know some kids are sexually active, so we have to cover (contraception),” Arnold said.
“I think the curriculum is balanced,” Arnold said. “But we try to be more on the conservative side.”
Parents can choose to opt their children out of these lessons, but Arnold said “very few” do.
“Maryland is not abnormal,” Conrad said. Youngsters ages 15 to 24, have high rates of STDs, namely Chlamydia, that coincide with the national average.
“The information is out there,” said Kara Eckels, disease intervention specialist for Dorchester and Talbot counties’ health departments. “Some choose to use it and some choose not to — I guess that’s why STDs have been around forever.”
But information may not be enough or even too much.
“Sometimes I think it’s a prevention overload for some of the younger kids,” said Eckels.
“It’s not that they’re not getting the prevention message,” said Eckels. It’s that “it can’t happen to me” attitude and the naive trust of partners that lead to the spread of STDs in younger sexually active groups.
“They have to have the self-confidence to be able to say ‘no love without glove,'” Eckels said. “It’s a tough thing to say.”
“A lot of (sexually transmitted) infections are silent, without symptoms,” Conrad said. “It is possible to have one and not know it.”
Chlamydia often produces no symptoms and can still be transmitted to a sexual partner. Chlamydia is easily treated with antibiotics, but can lead to infertility in untreated women.
Conrad said people either seek care after developing symptoms or after a partner was recently tested or treated and suggested they do or for their own information.
Almost half of medically insured women voluntarily get tested for Chlamydia, according to the health department.
“Compared to other states, Maryland is doing well,” Conrad said of the women who voluntarily get tested.
“It’s one of those good-news-bad-news things,” Conrad said. On the one hand you have half of Maryland women choosing to get tested by their providers, on the other Maryland ranks in the top five for syphilis and in the top 20 for gonorrhea and Chlamydia.
To improve Maryland’s rates, more must be done.
“I wish there was a golden thing that could keep people from getting STDs,” Eckels said. “But we’re doing the best we can.”