It has come to our attention at The Health Center that there is a rumor circulating on campus that WCU ranks high in the amount of STDs nationwide. RESPONSE: It is very unlikely that WCU can claim the prize here, but there are no absolute numbers available locally or nationally to absolutely verify this. The answer requires a read-between-the-lines approach.
Each state in the U.S., through its Public Health Department, has a list of reportable diseases/illnesses such as chickenpox, measles and some STDs. Of the more than 25 diseases known to be spread primarily by sexual activity, Pennsylvania requires by law that four STDs be reported. They are: gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and HIV.
To protect the general public, the Health Department tracks the treatment of the reported cases and their contacts (partners). Data is typically organized by state/region/county and gender/age/ethnicity/race. There is no required reporting of cases of the other most common STDs: genital herpes, human papilloma virus, Hepatitis B and trichomoniasis. We can conclude from this that we know more about the frequency and trends of some STDs than others.
Before talking numbers, there is another factor to consider in this discussion. Reported cases of any infection come from patients seeking care because of symptoms and patients being screened during routine medical visits. Uncounted in statistics are the people who have an infection and are passing it to others, but don’t have any symptoms and remain undiagnosed. These “asymptomatic carriers” account for a large number of cases when you consider, for example, that over 50 percent of men and women with chlamydia have no symptoms. All STDs have significant rates of asymptomatic infection. If anything, the numbers we have are actually lower than the true number of cases.
Show me the numbers! The following numbers come from the 1999 CATES study and the CDC 2002 statistics. There are an estimated 15 million new cases of STDs diagnosed in the U.S. annually. Fifty percent of new STD cases occur in 15 to 24-year-olds. That means that every year 7.5 million 15 to 24-year-olds caught an STD. One out of every four sexually active teens will get an STD.
Trichomoniasis (five million new cases/year) and chlamydia (three million new cases/year) are the most prevalent curable STD’s. The U.S. state with the highest rate of chlamydia is Arkansas.
In 2002, 351,852 cases of gonorrhea were reported. Louisiana had the highest rate of reported gonorrhea in the U.S.
Human Papilloma virus is currently the fastest-spreading of all STDs, with estimates of 5.5 million new cases each year and an estimated 20 million people infected. It is estimated that 28-46 percent of women under 25 are infected with HPV. Certain types of HPV are associated with cervical cancer.
Genital herpes infection is spreading fastest in 15 to 19-year-olds. One in every five teens acquire genital herpes. Less than 10 percent know they are infected. It can be transmitted from cold sores on the mouth.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis infection are declining nationally because of good screening programs and active treatment of partners. Among teenagers, five percent of young men and 5-10 percent of young women are infected. Regionally, the southern U.S has the highest rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis because of high rural poverty and lack of access to quality health care.
The cumulative number of cases of HIV in the U.S. in 2002 was 886,575. Men having sex with men and IV drug use account for the highest risk behaviors associated with HIV.
Pennsylvania is ranked seventh in the U.S. in number of reported AIDS cases.
Getting back to the original question: How high does WCU rate compared to other schools?
There are no available numbers to rank schools first to last. Too many of these infections are present in people without symptoms and therefore are undiagnosed and uncounted. Many of these infections are not reported to any central data base.
It is safe to extrapolate the following from the research: The majority of WCU students are under age 25 and therefore in the age group with the known highest rate of STD infection.
There are screening programs at the university and in the community for detecting gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis and HIV. The presence of these programs contributes to a decrease in infection because cases are identified and contacts are treated, thus leading to less new cases.
Demographically we are located in proximity to major metropolitan areas (Philadelphia, Newark, N.J. and Baltimore, Md.) that are ranked in the upper tiers of occurrence for most STDs nationally. The STD rate in our student population will reflect the incidence rates of the communities from which they come from and the area in which the school is located.
By far, female students bear the greatest burden of STDs, suffering more frequent and more serious consequences than men.
Men having sex with men still account for 42 percent of new HIV cases. This group also has the highest rate of syphilis and gonorrhea.
So, what do WCU students need to do? Students here probably behave similarly to other U.S. young adults and the statistics on the incidence of STDs in this age group are far from comforting…50 percent of our students will acquire an STD by the time they are 25. Some STDs are curable with antibiotics (gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, trichomoniasis). Others, like herpes, HPV and HIV are manageable but not curable. Getting checked, even if there are no symptoms, is one way of controlling the spread of these infections. A “normal” check up does not mean there are no STDs because we have very limited ability to diagnose asymptomatic infections. Safe sex (using condoms and dental dams) is the only known prevention besides abstinence.
And, of course, when a patient gets an STD, statistics are little comfort. Whether it was a 1 in 10 or 1 in 1,000,000 chance, if it happens to you, you have to deal with it. Having sex? Yes, there’s a 50/50 chance you’ll get an STD by the time you turn 25. Make your odds better: Use condoms and make an agreement that you and your partner will be checked for infection.