With Sexually Transmitted Diseases and infections on the rise in Kern County, Kern Sol News spoke to Patrick Salazar, the program manager with the Kern County Public Health Department. The data mentioned in the story comes from 2021 due to the department not having 2022 or 2023 data available yet.
- The Kern County Public Health Department website shows that compared to 20 years ago Kern County is 114% higher for HIV/AIDS, Gonorrhea is 167% higher, Syphilis is 30 times higher and, Congenital Syphilis is 34 times higher. Can you share specific rates for these sexually transmitted diseases in Kern County?
- Some preliminary data that we have for 2021 because our data is always behind. Some preliminary data that we have shows that for Clahmidya cases we had about 5,973 cases. For Gonorrhea we had fewer cases but there were 2,239 cases. In regards to Syphilis, we have about 1,293 cases. Then HIV we had 189 new cases back in 2021 which has been the highest new case rate that we’ve ever had in Kern County even since the earlier epidemic. We do account for population growth as part of that but it’s still too high… basically, this equates to an STI occurring about once every hour.
- Along with population what factors do you think are contributing to this increase in cases? For example, do you think the pandemic had anything to do with the increase in cases?
- What we saw was that cases decreased in 2020 and then they shot right back up in 2021. So the reason for that being is that the state issued the stay-at-home order so people were not accessing healthcare like they normally would’ve. So, there weren’t a lot of people out there really testing for STIs. Once the pandemic kept moving along and I think in 2021 people were kind of getting out but we saw people accessing health care again. So, we always give the data for 2020 with a caveat in that there was a stay-at-home order.
- What advice would you give for staying safe regarding STDs and STIs?
- Just kind of taking control of your own health and seeking out testing as part of your normal healthcare. For anybody that’s sexually active, it’s just taking that role of seeking out testing whether that be annually or whatever the time interval is just to have that as part of your normal healthcare… As you’re probably aware some STIs don’t show any symptoms and so someone may not know they have anything.
- What advice do you have for people to maintain good sexual health after contracting an incurable STD such as HIV/AIDs or Herpes?
- It’s just really finding the recourses. You know obviously, the public health department is a resource and just trying to be more educated. I think what the pandemic did, it moved a lot of recourses and things online and so there’s so much information out there on the web. So, it’s just really looking for the information that you know is going to be accurate. Visiting websites such as the CDC and even the state website, even our website, just make sure you have accurate information. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Then it’s just really knowing what are the treatment options… Getting informed about the treatment options that are there and knowing that someone with HIV can live a normal healthy life. It’s just another chronic disease like diabetes or cholesterol where you have to take medications.
- What demographics according to the data have the highest rates?
- We have been seeing more cases that involve homelessness, even cases where there’s substance use involved, and even people who have behavioral health issues. We’ve been seeing a number of cases that have factors like that involved. We’ve also been seeing an increase in the number of women that are contracting things such as HIV. Those are obviously concerning to us and we want to try to do more messaging to get that information out in the community so that people can be aware of it.
- Is there any specific age group you are seeing with higher rates?
- We are seeing more young people that are more affected for example, by HIV. Maybe within the last five years not including 2023 or 2022 we’ve been seeing an increase in the number of young people contracting HIV which is concerning. We also see things like syphilis where people are diagnosed with syphilis and HIV at the same time. We’re seeing it more in young people, I’d say probably up to the age of 19 or 20 kind of in that range.
- What is a myth about STDs you would like to debunk?
- One of the most common ones that I hear is ‘Something like that would never happen to me because I always protect myself and so it’s not something I need to worry about’. That might not be accurate because someone could be protecting themselves from syphilis but there are different ways of contracting syphilis. So, if someone is engaging in oral sex it can be passed on that way. You don’t have to just have intercourse in order to pass on STIs.
Salazar again encouraged people to get tested as a part of their normal health routines. For those that would feel more comfortable at home, he stated that there are more home testing kits for people to test themselves and then send the specimen to a lab for results.