Chlamydia cases on rise in Pitkin County
November 19, 2007
PITKIN COUNTY ” Sexually transmitted diseases ” particularly chlamydia ” are on the rise nationwide, and Pitkin County is not immune.
From zero cases of chlamydia in Pitkin County in 2004, county health officials reported 18 cases in 2005, 21 cases in 2006 and 12 so far this year.
Colorado ranks 22nd in the nation for chlamydia infections, with 16,313 cases statewide and 349.7 cases per 100,000 people. The state is on par with the national average of 347 cases in 100,000, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With 24 cases in a population of 15,000 people, Pitkin County has 160 cases per 100,000 ” about half the national average. But local health practitioners are seeing the number of chlamydia patients increase steadily.
Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted bacterial infection in men and women, but symptoms are often subtle or undetectable, according to Dr. Morris Cohen, public health officer for Pitkin County. And while chlamydia is treatable, scars from the infection can lead to infertility in women.
“Chlamydia is a problem because not many people know they have it,” Cohen said.
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The highest incidents of chlamydia are in women between the age of 17 and 20, Cohen said; he urges clients to have screenings and regular pap smears.
“The big thing is recognition,” Cohen said.
It’s understandable that there are regular cases of sexually transmitted disease among Aspen’s young, transient population, but the infection rates are not particularly higher in Aspen than elsewhere, Cohen said.
In addition to chlamydia, different kinds of gonorrhea are becoming drug-resistant and harder to treat, and many young women are contracting human papillomavirus, which can lead to cervical cancer, Cohen said.
“I think because we’re seeing the numbers of chlamydia increase, we want to provide education about it wherever possible,” said Liz Stark, director of community health services.
Stark runs the clinic at the health and human services building near Aspen Valley Hospital. She charges on a sliding scale and offers tests, counseling and treatment for a number of communicable diseases and reproductive health issues.
Stark said people should seek treatment immediately if they experience symptoms such as a burning feeling while urinating, and discharge, pain, bleeding or lesions. Chlamydia and gonorrhea symptoms can appear from seven to 28 days after sex with an infected partner, though most men and women show no symptoms, Stark said.
Stark counsels clients with a diagnosis of sexually transmitted disease to refrain from sex during treatment and to contact all past sexual partners to prevent further transmission or reinfecting themselves.
Most sexually transmitted diseases are “reportable,” so state and federal agencies can keep reliable statistics, Stark said.
“If you have sex, always use a condom,” Stark said. And she encourages sexually active people to know their partners, get tested and see a doctor if any symptoms arise.
“Chlamydia can cause permanent reproductive problems in women, as can gonorrhea,” Stark said, and diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus and syphilis affect the entire system.
One local doctor said he sees sexually transmitted diseases “frequently.”
“We’ll have probably three or four patients come in any given week with specific concerns about an exposure,” said Dr. Dewayne Niebur of Aspen Medical Care.
And about half those patients turn out to have something, usually more innocuous cases such as genital warts, but also more serious diseases, Niebur said.
Niebur also has practiced in Hawaii, as well as New Zealand and Australia. And though those communities were quite different, making direct comparison difficult, Niebur said he sees more cases in Aspen.
“It’s a very young and fairly transient population, and you get more of the risky behaviors,” Niebur said.
Niebur’s recommendations echoed those of most health professionals: “Don’t even think about having sex without protection.”
The only guarantee of not getting a sexually transmitted is complete abstinence from sex, and short of that, a condom is the best option. Niebur likened sex with a stranger to going to a movie, picking your seat and finding a bucket of popcorn sitting in the seat next to you.
“You don’t know where that’s been,” Niebur said. “Do you reach in there and start chowing away?”
Nobody would, he said. And it’s the same with meeting a stranger at a bar or a party.
Many patients come to him with sad stories of broken condoms or unprotected sex with people they don’t know or remember.
“It’s hazardous,” Niebur said.
Niebur said health-care professionals once tested only at-risk groups, such as prostitutes and intravenous drug users. But today, doctors test all clients who elect to be tested, and the Centers for Disease Control recommend annual screening for human immunodeficiency virus.
“Usually, there’s a great deal of angst and frustration,” Niebur said of informing patients of a positive test result. “There’s an element of counseling that needs to be done.”
Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.