April 26 2017 01:11 PM

Gonorrhea, chlamydia raging in Ingham County as Health Department rolls out education effort

The “clap” and “clam” — street names for gonorrhea and chlamydia — are occurring well above the national rate in Ingham County, particularly among African Americans.

The high frequency of both sexually transmitted diseases is “staggering,” Linda Vail, the county’s top health officer, said. As a result, the county is ramping up its education and outreach programs.

The national rates for chlamydia in 2015, the last year for which there are figures, was about 4.8 cases per 1,000 Americans. In Ingham County, the overall rate in 2016 was about 7.2 per 1,000. But for African Americans locally, the rate was 15 per 1,000. For whites, it was just two per 1,000.

For gonorrhea, the national rate in 2015 was 12.4 cases per 1,000. In Ingham, the overall rate for 2016 was 2.39 per 1,000. For African Americans, it was nine per 1,000, while it was below one per 1,000 for whites.

Vail said the disparity between whites and African Americans is not surprising. She noted that the issues of poverty and access to healthcare are key obstacles to people of color in addressing many health concerns. Teens and young adults also show higher rates of the two sexually transmitted infections than the general population, according to the county Health Department figures. Just over 2 percent of 15-to-24 year olds was diagnosed with chlamydia in 2016. Nearly six in 1,000 people in those age groups contracted gonorrhea. Among 25-to-29-yearolds, nearly seven in 1,000 were infected with gonorrhea, while 29-year-olds were diagnosed with gonorrhea, compared with just over 14 in 1000 in that age group being diagnosed with chlamydia.

Nine of the county’s 22 zip codes reported nearly five cases per 1,000 of chlamydia, including all of Lansing, East Lansing, MSU and Onondaga. Leslie comes in just under the national rate at 474 cases per 100,000. Gonorrhea rates that are higher than the national rate are found in all six of Lansing’s zip codes.. Both bacterial infections can be cured with antibiotics. Left untreated, the diseases can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility. Some people can be infected, but have no symptoms, Vail noted.

Health officials are empowered in Michigan to provide prescriptions for antibiotics to treat the two diseases for a person’s sexual partner. So if people diagnosed with chlamydia, their diagnosis are counted in official statistics. But health workers could write a prescription for each of their sexual partners, cutting out a diagnosis. Those people who are treated pre-emptively do not appear in any of the disease statistics.

Vail said the higher rate among youth here is not surprising and reflects national trends. She also said the racial and age disparities parallel other health-related issues in the community. “You know those people are lacking access to healthcare services,” she said. “Sometimes they’re covered — when you look at the younger population — on their parents’ insurance and they don’t want them to know they were being tested. She said the county is “just getting our head around” barriers to lowering those rates among youth and African Americans.

Part of getting around them is a new prevention program called Choices not Changes that the county launched last September. “This is a new strategy in a long-term battle,” she said of efforts to raise the profile of the diseases.

The program aims to use social media and the Internet to educate young people in the county about sexually transmitted infections. While abstaining from sexual activity is the most effective way to prevent getting a sexually transmitted infection, Vail and others at the department recognize that for those who are choosing to have sex, condoms are a very effective mode of prevention.

Ironically, as the county scales up its public education campaign, Vail warned the numbers could go higher as those who were infected but without symptoms are identified.

But accessing condoms is a problem, young people told county health officials last summer. The county will mail condoms to county residents if they request them through the Website, and they have also begun distributing condoms through various community partners, like the Allen Neighborhood Center and Letts Community Center. Condoms are also available at the Ingham Community Health Center locations, including Willow.

During the process to develop the new campaign, Amanda Darche, health communications specialist for the county, surveyed youth in the county as well as conducted in-person focus groups. What she and her team discovered was that youth feared parents would open the mailed condom packets from the county. They told Darche and others they wanted to have access to condoms at the school based health clinics.

It’s illegal in Michigan to distribute condoms on a public school property. School districts that violate that law could lose all their state education funding. Vail and Union Missionary Baptist Church leader the Rev. Melvin Jones agreed it was time to revisit that law, which was passed in the 1980s.

State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Meridian Township, said he would “support having that discussion.” He did not think such a move would go very far in the current GOP-controlled Legislature, however.

Republican State Sen. Rick Jones,R- Grand Ledge, represents parts of Ingham county. He would support allowing schools with nurses or health clinics onsite to distribute condoms.. But he added, that he didn’t think a majority of his constituents would agree with him if condoms were not distributed by a healthcare professional.

State Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, said he, too, would support a change in the law. “I think schools should have the flexibility to provide all the tools students would need as they mature,” said Schor, who is running for mayor of Lansing. “Some areas, probably more conservative, may choose not to. Others, like Lansing, may choose to do so. It’s a community conversation and decision then.”

The Rev. Jones expressed dismay at the numbers. “Those hit me square between the eyes,” he said. Jones said the numbers indicate a “moral deficit” in the African American community. “It shows how far removed they are from the authority the church represents,” he said. In addition to the “moral question” involved, he said access to affordable healthcare is likely another driver.