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Sex-disease cases soar in Utah County

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Deseret Morning News graphic

PROVO — Reported cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in the United States increased sharply in 2005, and ultraconservative Utah County was no exception.

Utah County saw more than a 50 percent jump from 2004 to 2005 in the number of cases of the two sexually transmitted diseases, according to a Utah Department of Health report.

The percentage increase is on par with the national average, but the state and county fare much better in the number of cases per 100,000 residents, said John Amadio, regional epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health.

Utah's rate per 100,000 people is about half that of the nation, and Utah County cuts that rate in half again, said Amadio, who presented the findings of the report this week to the Utah County Board of Health.

"Comparatively speaking, Utah County is in pretty good shape," he said. "But when you've got (sexually transmitted diseases) all around you, it has a way of spreading."

The Utah County study was sparked by nurses at the county health department who work with patients infected with STDs. They noticed a sudden increase in cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea and were concerned that prevention efforts weren't working effectively, Amadio said.

The state's analysis found that the nurses were right: Utah County saw significant increases from 2004 to '05 in reported cases of chlamydia (from 225 to 421) and gonorrhea (from 41 to 60).

The report shows that chlamydia is the greater problem of the two in Utah County. As expected, nearly half of the cases are found in young adults ages 20-24.

The cases also were broken down by ethnic group. With a 92 percent white population in Utah County, it's not surprising that most of those with chlamydia were white.

The study also showed chlamydia to be a problem among Utah County Hispanics.

"The Hispanic population represents less than 10 percent of the (county's) population but almost 30 percent of the cases," Amadio said.

Health officials say more efficient and acceptable testing methods in recent years have made people more willing to be tested for STDs and as a result have led to more cases being reported.

But it's also a reflection of the number of people in the county who have the disease — many of whom likely don't know they have it, said Melissa Montoya, public health nurse with the Utah County Health Department.

As many as 75 percent of sexually active women and 50 percent of men have chlamydia but show no symptoms, according to the Utah Health Department. It's estimated that 5 percent of all sexually active women in the United States have chlamydia infection.

"If we don't get a handle on this, we're going to have some serious problems," Montoya said.

If untreated, chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women, putting them at risk of infertility or experiencing a possibly life-threatening ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, according to the Utah Health Department. Pregnant woman with chlamydia also are at increased risk of pre-term delivery, and the bacteria also may be transmitted to their newborn and cause pneumonia or an eye infection.

The Utah County Health Department spent more than $95,000 to investigate and treat STDs in 2005. As the numbers continue to rise, more prevention efforts are needed, health officials say.

Montoya said the public needs to become better educated about STDs and make sure they get tested. Women also need to be diligent in getting prenatal care early in their pregnancy to make sure any infections are caught quickly, she said.

The report also recommends routine testing of all sexually active people ages 15 to 24, as well as testing and treatment for all jail populations. It also recommends premarital STD testing for anyone who has had a previous sexual partner.

Eduction efforts also need to be increased among people with high-risk lifestyles, Amadio said. That education could include showing pictures of disease consequences.

"I think we perhaps are a little too squeamish sometimes in talking about the consequences of these diseases," he said. "The complications can be quite serious. We need to be a little more firm about how serious those complications are."

E-mail: jpage@desnews.com