By Dr. John Rodakowski
Sexually transmitted infections are caused either by bacteria or viruses that are transmitted from one person to the other, usually through sexual intercourse, though they can all be passed from a mother to her infant during childbirth and some can be transmitted through exposure to an infected person’s blood.
Common bacterial infections include gonorrhea and chlamydia. The most common sexually transmitted infection is genital herpes, which is caused by a virus.
Rarer types of bacterial infections include syphilis, chancroid and lymphogranuloma venereum. Other viral diseases include human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis B. Hepatitis C can be transmitted sexually, but that is uncommon, and it is usually transmitted through exposure to an infected person’s blood.
Bacterial sexually transmitted infections can be treated with antibiotics once they are diagnosed. For many viral infections though there are not cures. Once a person has acquired herpes, it is a lifelong infection and it can cause outbreaks of small painful sores, usually reoccurring in the same area on a person’s body. Many people don’t have these outbreaks but for those who do, there are medications available to suppress the outbreaks. Those who have herpes are most infectious during an outbreak.
HIV also cannot be cured. It is a virus that attacks the immune system and slowly wears it down. There are now medications that can keep the virus in check and people who are treated can live for decades when they take their medication. It can take many years for symptoms to show up after someone is infected. The first clue that someone has an HIV infection if they are not tested is usually that a person starts to become ill with unusual infections.
Hepatitis B however can be treated if someone has a chronic infection. Not everyone infected develops a chronic infection and many peoples’ immune systems fight the infection off. Hepatitis viruses attack the liver and can cause cirrhosis, liver failure and liver cancer if not treated.
Chlamydia and gonorrhea can both be treated with common antibiotics. They can both cause irritation, discharge and painful urination. People are often infected and do not show symptoms.
So how common are these infections in our area? The highest rates of infection are in teenagers and young adults. For Washington State, the most recent statistics are for 2016. They show about 434 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 persons living in the state. For gonorrhea the rate is 114 in 100,000. Both rates are lower than the United States average. The average rate of infection in Grays Harbor County for both these diseases is less than the state average, and has been lower for many years.
Syphilis is a much rarer disease and in 2016 there were 7.9 cases of syphilis per 100,000 people in Washington. This is slightly higher than the recent U.S. average but not by much. Grays Harbor County has a few syphilis cases a year, but it is not usually enough to calculate an accurate rate, and it would be lower than the state rates. The most recent rate for herpes is 36 in 100,000. This seems low compared to chlamydia, but it is only cases of newly diagnosed herpes, and it is less likely to be reported compared to other infections. The most recent year that county statistics are available for herpes was 2014 and the rate was the same, 36 in 100,000 but that year our county was higher than the state rate of 30 in 100,000.
Newly diagnosed HIV cases in Grays Harbor County are 5.2 in 100,000 for the most recent data available. This compares to a state average of 6.8 in 100,000.
So, it seems Grays Harbor County has lower numbers of most sexually transmitted infections compared to the rest of the state and the country. This does not mean residents shouldn’t worry about becoming infected. These numbers are just rates and anyone who is sexually active is at risk.
Things you can do to protect yourself include using condoms for sexual encounters. If used correctly they can prevent many sexually transmitted infections. Also, if you are starting a new relationship, you and your partner can both get tested for common infections at the start of the relationship. Testing is available through the local health department or your primary care provider. If you do have an infection, it is important to inform any potential partners before engaging in activities that could transmit an infection.
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