Take Action


California’s sexually transmitted diseases hit 20-year high – people who use Methamphetamine may be to blame

October 26, 2016

California’s rate of sexually transmitted diseases is at a 20-year high, and Fresno County has some of the highest rates in the state.

The California Department of Public Health said the state ranks first for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and congenital syphilis. And the rates are up for the second year in a row.

The report found an 11.6 percent increase in STDs from 2014, with a total of 249,224 reportable cases in California for 2015.condoms

State health officials cite less condom use, people having sex with more partners and barriers to care and testing as reasons for the rising STD rates. Improved reporting of the diseases by public health agencies could also be a contributing factor, the state said.

Fresno County health officials said social media could be fueling the increase in STDs statewide by providing an easy means for people to have multiple sexual partners. But in Fresno County, drug use is driving an epidemic of syphilis cases.

The county had the second-highest rate of syphilis in the state in 2015.

“As a general rule, syphilis had primarily been an illness of men having sex with men, but now in our community it’s with people who use methamphetamine and it’s taken off just like wildfire,” said Dr. Ken Bird, the county’s health officer.

Methamphetamine users tend to have several sexual partners and they tend not to use condoms, Bird said.

Earlier this year, Fresno County asked the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for help in reducing syphilis. With the federal agency’s help – and county money – the health department has developed a new syphilis investigation program.

The county budget for STD prevention and control has increased from $195,065 in fiscal year 2014 to $761,628 this year, said Joe Prado, community health division manager.

The money has allowed the county to pay for Bicillin, an expensive medicine for treating syphilis. The cost of the medicine was preventing some doctors in the community from treating patients, he said. Between February and June, the county spent $62,439 for the drug, he said.

The county also opened a clinic for patients and their partners who have been identified by county health investigators. “I think this expedited process of treatment is really helping us now,” Prado said.

It also has increased screening of jail inmates and has collaborated with jail staff to track patients when they are released from jail, Prado said.

And to get patients into treatment, the county has billboards in several locations and has placed advertisements inside city buses, he said. The health department has commandeered restaurant inspectors to drop off posters at laundromats and bars in “hot zones” – communities that have the highest number of cases.

Syphilis is not the only STD plaguing Fresno County. It ranked second for its rate of chlamydia and third for gonorrhea, but syphilis attacks the heart, the brain and the nervous system, and pregnant women can pass it to their babies. It’s the county’s primary focus right now, Bird said.

California’s STD rates are highest among people 15 to 24 years old and especially females. Gay and bisexual men are also at high risk.

California’s in the process of giving $5 million in grants to county health departments for STD prevention, testing and treatment.