For every woman in Monterey County infected with early stage syphilis in 2017, there were five who were infected in 2018. That’s according to data released Oct. 8 by the California Department of Public Health, showing no end to a 30-year rise in the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and prompting the agency to announce STDs have reached “epidemic levels.”
Within Monterey County, rates of gonorrhea have increased by 40 percent since 2014, while chlamydia rates have increased 28 percent. California as a whole is doing even worse; Monterey County’s chlamydia rate is near the state’s average, while local gonorrhea and syphilis rates are about half the statewide rate.
“It tends to be young people, and particularly young people of color,” says Kristy Michie, an epidemiologist at the Monterey County Health Department. The rate of chlamydia among the black population in Monterey County is four times higher than among whites, while the rate among Latinos is three times higher than among whites.
A CDPH official points to a “complex web of social factors” driving the increase, including social stigma, which can prevent people from seeking testing or treatment, and dating apps that enable “multiple and anonymous sexual encounters.”
Courtney Mulhern-Pearson of the San Francisco AIDS Society points to another factor: budget cuts. As infection rates have increased, funding for local health departments statewide has stagnated.
There has been an attempt to improve the situation with an additional $15 million allocated in the new state budget for STDs, HIV and Hepatitis C programs.
“It’s very much appreciated, but it’s not sufficient,” Mulhern-Pearson says. “We really see that as the very, very beginning of what’s needed.”
One bright spot in the state’s sexual health is SB 159, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Oct. 7. It takes effect in July 2020 and allows the sale of HIV-prevention medication without a prescription; pharmacists will be able to distribute up to 60 days’ worth of pre-exposure prophylaxis, known as PrEP, which prevents HIV-negative people from becoming infected. Michie says the option to start PrEP at a pharmacy could be especially helpful for people in rural South County who are located farther from doctors.
“With the new legislation, things will be a lot easier,” says Paris de La Rosa, Salinas program manager of nonprofit Access Support Network, which helps HIV-positive individuals across Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties access housing, health care and social services. “It’s a positive thing.”