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

home-testing kit for sexually transmitted diseases in los angeles

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.”