Berkeley saw a record number of cases of sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, last year, reflecting a statewide increase in 2017 — and college-aged students made up a majority of the cases.
Over the last five years, California has seen a 45 percent increase in incidents of three major STIs — chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. In 2017, Berkeley reported 898 cases of chlamydia, 367 cases of gonorrhea and 33 cases of syphilis, according to provisional data released by the California Department of Public Health, or CDPH. The number of cases for these three STIs is the highest Berkeley has seen since 2013.
The Sexually Transmitted Diseases Control Branch, or STD Control Branch, for CDPH collected this data as a part of its regular analysis of STI cases in California.
“We used provisional data. … It’s not the final, final numbers, but we felt strongly that it told an important story,” said Heidi Bauer, chief of the STD Control Branch.
If left untreated, the infections have major consequences — chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause infertility, and syphilis can cause permanent blindness and deafness. When detected early on, all three of the bacterial infections can be treated and cured with antibiotics, according to Bauer.
“We should really be doing better in terms of controlling these infections,” Bauer said.
For college students, Bauer underscored the importance of being tested regularly and using condoms. Talking to sexual partners about whether they’ve been tested can also increase awareness and reduce risk, Bauer added.
“People are not aware that they need to be tested on a regular basis. A lot of people think they’re going to have a symptom … which is only true some of the time,” Bauer said. “Most of these infections don’t cause any symptoms and are readily transmitted through oral sex — a lot of people don’t use condoms for oral sex.”
Oral and rectal tests screen for STIs in individuals who have oral and anal sex — Bauer added that many healthcare providers, however, don’t provide these tests.
“It’s really a … epidemic in California that’s not confined to any particular group,” Bauer said, emphasizing that the increases are across the board.
The STD Control Branch is approaching intervention through three different avenues: mandating sexual education in public schools, working with medical providers to ensure comprehensive STI testing and encouraging local health departments to ensure treatment for patients who test positive, according to Bauer.
In October 2015, California passed AB 329, which mandated sexual health education in public schools — Bauer said her branch has been working to enforce this law and ensure quality sexual health education. Reforming and mandating sexual health education allows young people to have access to various forms of STI protection, she added.
“There’s a real potential here from a public health perspective to make a difference,” Bauer said. “It’s not a taboo topic to talk with each other — talk about testing practices and taking care of your sexual health. I think those conversations are not happening as well as they could.”
STI testing is available in Berkeley at the Tang Center, Ann Chandler Public Health Center, Berkeley Free Clinic, LifeLong West Berkeley Health Center and LifeLong Ashby Health Center.