The STD color line

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Recent statistics on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the United States offer mixed news about the prevalence of these illnesses among Americans. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that, while new syphilis infection rates have fallen slightly in 2010, STDs still take an enormous toll on the country, with 19 million new STD infections each year in the U.S., costing the country $17 billion on an annual basis.

Among the three reportable sexually transmitted diseases gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis there were some positive trends. Syphilis rates fell for the first time in 10 years, falling 20 percent among women but rising 1.3 percent among men although it is not clear if this was a blip in the record or indicative of a longer-term trend. At the same time, even though gonorrhea rates rose slightly, they remain at historically low levels. And although there was a rise in chlamydia, the greater number of cases can likely be attributed in large part to improved screening efforts.

What was perhaps most disturbing about the report were the enormous disparities that exist between different ethnic groups in terms of STD rates. For chlamydia and syphilis, the rates of illness among African Americans were around 10 times higher than the rates among whites. Gonorrhea exhibits an even greater disparity, with African Americans experiencing a rate almost 20 times that of white Americans. For all of these diseases, the rate shown in Hispanics fell somewhere in between those of the other two groups.

According to Dr. Kevin Fenton, the director of the CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, these huge disparities likely result to a large extent from factors including differences in health insurance coverage, employment status, [and] inability to access preventative services or curative services. These factors could make it difficult for members of disadvantaged communities to obtain early diagnosis and treatment of these infections.

As ACSH's Lana Spivak explains, If a person with a reliable support system and access to health insurance contracts one of these sexually transmitted diseases, they ll waste little time in seeking treatment. But if someone does not have this access, they ll be less likely to head straight to the doctor. Not only will they not get rapid treatment, but they will remain infectious and contribute to the continued spread of the disease, eventually showing up at the ER with a serious complication.