Smartphone Hookups, Stigma, Racism Share Blame for California’s STD Epidemic

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Teenage girls formed a circle and passed a plastic, life-sized penis from one to another while music played. When the music stopped, whichever girl was holding the penis had to roll a condom onto it.

“It’s like hot potato/musical chairs, but with a penis,” one of the girls told the Los Angeles Times.

The game, part of a daylong “Spring Into Love” event, is also one way California public health officials are trying to stem the tide of soaring STD rates in the state.

For the third year in a row, California residents set a record for the most common sexually transmitted diseases. More than 300,000 cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis were reported in California last year. A state health department report released in May showed that’s a 45 percent increase since 2013 and the highest number since 1990.

Dr. Heidi Bauer, chief of the California Health Department’s STD Control Branch, said half of the chlamydia and a third of the gonorrhea cases were reported in people under the age of 25.

Bauer said she couldn’t point to a single reason for the increase in STD cases. But she did stress there were “very high rates of folks who are not accessing sexual health services and aren’t getting screened frequently.”

The California Health Department report showed the state had the second-highest rate of congenital syphilis in the nation. Louisiana had the worst rate of that disease, which happens when syphilis passes from the mother to a fetus. Thirty of the 278 California babies who suffered from the disease were stillbirths. Those who survive the disease may be blind, deaf or afflicted with severe anemia or deformed bones, according to a report from Kaiser Health News.

Seven of the California stillbirths caused by congenital syphilis occurred in Fresno County.

“We’re getting a lot of … younger pregnant women infected with syphilis and not getting prenatal care,” Mario Alfaro, regional program director for education at Planned Parenthood Mar Monte in Fresno, told Kaiser Health News.

Valerie Coachman-Moore, who runs the WeCanStopSTDsLA coalition that put on the Spring Into Love event, said many young people are not getting the sex-health education they need because parents are still afraid to talk about STDs. “Sexual health was something in my household that was taboo,” Ashley Deras, a high school senior, said. “All I heard was, ‘Don’t get pregnant.’”

“This is such a natural human interaction, and yet it’s so stigmatized,” said Coachman-Moore. “People are having sex? Yeah.”

Smartphones make it easy to meet someone, anyone, for sex. Just a tap or a swipe, and you have a date for the night. And that’s one more reason cited for California’s STD crisis. Dr. Barbara Gripshover, medical director of the special immunology unit at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, told Healthline “the use of hookup apps and less condom use have been reported as potential factors in California, Ohio, and nationally.”

Bauer said the internet and smartphones have made it “very, very easy to create social and sexual connections.” People who hook up online rarely exchange contact information or discuss their medical histories. Also, she said the success of HIV/AIDS treatments might have resulted in the less-frequent use of condoms. “There is less concern about the transmission of HIV,” Bauer said.

Heather Jue Northover, the director of Los Angeles County’s Center for Health Equity, blamed racism — noting that neighborhoods where blacks, Hispanics and other people of color gather and live tend to have fewer parks, doctors, and more pollution.

Northover stated Los Angeles County syphilis rates are six times higher for black women than white women and three times higher than Latina women. She also said African-Americans tend not to trust the healthcare system, so they are hesitant to seek medical advice. Others, Northover said, can’t get to a clinic because of geography or money. But Northover also stated that she can’t be sure those factors are the cause of California’s skyrocketing STD rates. “We need to take a wider lens,” she said.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Healthline the people who need STD health care the most — the poor — are not receiving it because of budget cuts. “Public health is out there doing good things and cutting its budget prevents it from being as all-encompassing as it once was,” he said.

Julie Rabinovitz, president and CEO of Essential Access Health, called on the California Legislature to approve SB 1023, legislation designed to make it easier for state residents to receive STD and family planning information over their mobile phones.

Essential Access Health wants the California legislature to spend an additional $10 million on STD prevention and treatment.

“With this year’s budget showing a projected surplus, it’s time for the governor and our elected lawmakers to make STD funding a priority in this year’s state budget, and provide the leadership and resources needed to get the job done,” Rabinovitz wrote in a Sacramento Bee column.

However, even though more than one-third of the gonorrhea cases and one-half of the chlamydia cases involve 15- to 24-year-olds, Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s public health director, told the L.A. Times she hopes no one “blames these young people for not taking care of themselves.”