From 2004 to 2008, the reported cases of syphilis in Pennsylvania increased from 574 to 902, and in 2007, Pennsylvania’s rate of 102 people infected with gonorrhea out of every 100,000 was higher than rates in New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and all New England states.
This increase in STI rates in Pennsylvania mimics national trends. In 2009, The Center for Disease Control released a study that showed a nationwide increase in not only syphilis and gonorrhea, but also chlamydia. The rate of STIs is growing fastest among teenagers, especially teen girls.
Experts believe that the surge in STI rates is caused by a false sense of security because of new HIV drugs, inadequate or misleading sex education, and Internet dating tools. In previous years, the fear of contracting AIDS kept many people from engaging in risky sexual behavior. Now, according to the PennLive article’s author, “younger people aren’t as afraid of acquiring HIV anymore because they know that even if they contract it, some infected people can live for many years with medication.”
Studies have shown that effective sex-education programs teach students about both abstinence and contraception to prevent STIs and unplanned pregnancy. The massive increase in funding for abstinence-only sex education during the Bush administration may have caused some of the increase in STI rates. President Obama has favored comprehensive sex-ed programs, which could potentially improve STI rates.
The Internet also contributes to the statewide increase in syphilis and gonorrhea and the nationwide increase in syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. The Internet has made it possible for people to find anonymous sex partners, increasing the possibility of contracting a STI.
The most at-risk groups for contracting one of these STIs are men who have sex with men and teenagers, as these groups are most likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. These behaviors include having sex with multiple partners and not using condoms, both of which increase one’s chances of contracting an STI.
Syphilis, in its early stages, is easily curable with antibiotics. Left untreated, however, it can lead to severe complications. The majority of new syphilis cases are among men who have sex with men. However, since some of these men also have sex with women, “it’s inevitable that syphilis rates will rise among women.” Gonorrhea has become a “superbug,” developing a resistance to standard antibiotics. If trends continue, it may become untreatable. Teenaged women account for the majority of new cases of gonorrhea.
Support for comprehensive sex education in schools and public education campaigns that reach out to the most at-risk communities is crucial to slowing the spread of these STIs throughout Pennsylvania. You can do your part by asking your state representative to support the Healthy Youth Act, HB 1163, which would create standards for age-appropriate and medically-accurate sexuality education in the Commonwealth that teaches students about abstinence and ways to prevent STIs or unplanned pregnancy.