Over the past decade, the prevalence of the sexually transmitted infections (STIs) gonorrhea, chlamydia and early syphilis has increased sharply in Oregon and Lane County, and all three infections can lead to serious health consequences if left untreated.
The Emerald reached out to Lane County Health and Human Services (LCHHS) to learn more about this sharp increase in STIs and received a written response from public information officer Jason Davis and communicable disease supervisor Cindy Morgan.
They attribute the increase in Lane county STI cases to a number of different factors.
“We don’t have a definitive, single cause. Rather, we believe rates have a general rate and periodic fluctuation,” they wrote. “Population increase, coupled with lack of awareness, coupled with access issues all play a part.”
Gonorrhea in particular has become far more widespread in Oregon, with the number of cases increasing from 1,239 in 2007 to 4,367 in 2016. Over that same period of time, gonorrhea cases in Lane County increased more than fivefold from 53 to 282.
Despite this significant increase, Oregon and Lane County are still below the national average for incidence rates of gonorrhea, and although there has been an emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of gonorrhea, LCHHS reported that it has “not yet seen any resistant gonorrhea cases in Lane County.”
Rebecca Hagerwaite, a family nurse practitioner at the University of Oregon health clinic, said that there has been an increase in cases of UO students with gonorrhea over the past three years, increasing each year from 12, to 26 and now 34 in the 2017 – 2018 school year.
However, Hagerwaite said that syphilis rates amongst UO students have not been increasing over the past three years, with only one or two students being treated each year. She also said that chlamydia is by far the most common STI at UO, totaling between 200 to 245 cases per year.
For students wanting to know how to avoid contracting and spreading STIs, Hagerwaite recommends frequent testing, open dialogues with sexual partners and using proper barrier methods such as condoms and dental dams. She acknowledged that asking new partners about their sexual health is often times the most difficult aspect of STI prevention.
“If you do bring it up, sometimes people act very defensively — like why would you think I have something? And then it turns into this uncomfortable conversation,” Hagerwaite said.
She instead advises that people reframe the question to be about STI testing in order to avoid vague answers.
“If you ask a partner if they’re having any symptoms, that’s really not telling you any information,” Hagerwaite said. “It probably would be a better question if you are about to have sex with someone to ask, ‘When was the last time you got tested?’”
She believes that framing the question this way has the effect of normalizing testing because it “already starts a conversation and creates a space that testing is good — testing is a good thing and I expect that of you.”
Because conversations about barrier protection methods can also be difficult, the UO health clinic provides pamphlets to help students navigate confrontations they might face. They also provide barrier protections free of charge to students.
Regarding STI testing, Hagerwaite recommends following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines of one test per year for sexually active people from ages 15 to 24. Those guidelines stand even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms, as STIs are frequently present in people who experience no symptoms at all.
UO students can schedule STI screenings and diagnostic tests at the university health clinic through the myUOHealth portal. Information on which STIs they test for, as well as comprehensive information about these STIs and what you can expect during a test, can be found here.
Lane County residents who aren’t UO students also have many STI treatment and testing resources available to them, but according to LCHHS, many people aren’t aware of these options or are too reluctant to seek out help.
“The first step is always the hardest, and the broad awareness that affordable and cost free resources are readily available, free of judgement is one of the biggest access issues we battle against,” they wrote.
In addition to encouraging community members to establish a relationship with a primary care provider, LCHHS recommended the following resources available to Lane County residents who are interested in being tested or treated for STIs:
The Lane County Public Health office at 151 W. 7th Ave., Room 310 in Eugene is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and can treat people with or without health insurance.
Occupy Medical Clinic at W. 5th Ave. and Washington Street in Eugene is open from noon to 4 p.m. on Sundays. LCHHS wrote that Occupy Medical Clinic is a “great first step for connecting people to additional resources for help with STIs.”
The HIV Alliance at 1195A City View St. in Eugene is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. LCHHS described HIV Alliance as a “great resource for everything from information to testing.”