Pitt STD rates up with national average


Caela Go | Staff Photographer

The Student Health Center’s “Safe Sex Condom Distribution Program” provides free condoms for students in the Wellness Center waiting room, exam rooms and in the third floor restrooms of the William Pitt Union.

By Rebecca Johnson, Staff Writer

Nearly 2.4 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis were reported in the United States in 2018 — the highest cumulative number ever recorded, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These rapidly increasing national averages — a 14% increase between 2017 and 2018 in reported cases of syphilis, a 5% increase in gonorrhea and a 3% increase in chlamydia — have also affected Pitt.

Marian Vanek, the executive director of the Wellness Center, confirmed via email that Pitt has seen similar increases to those found by the CDC. Vanek also said chlamydia presents a particular challenge because it is asymptomatic, or shows no symptoms.
“STD rates in the USA have increased for the fourth consecutive year, with Chlamydia remaining as the most common STD reported,” Vanek said. “This is not surprising in that Chlamydia is often asymptomatic, going undetected, leaving many untreated. This is certainly a concern. And sadly, much can be prevented.”

Though the past two decades have seen further education on safe sex practices nationwide and significant drops in the levels of sexual activity among the younger generations, the number of STDs overall are more than twice that in 1999. Emily Hearty | Staff Graphic Artist 

Lawrence Kingsley, a professor of infectious diseases and microbiology in the Graduate School of Public Health, said this increasing number of preventable sexually transmitted diseases represents a failure in our country’s public health infrastructure.
My professional opinion is that this represents a failure of our public health system,” Kingsley said. “We haven’t been able to control many sexually transmitted diseases which are relatively easy to diagnose and fully treatable.”
Vanek said, if left untreated, these diseases pose serious risks.
“Any STD, if left undetected, can cause serious and possibly permanent harm,” Vanek said. “STDs can impact reproductive health, fetal health and even increase risk of certain cancers.”
For many health professionals, the increase in STDs is confounding, especially because teenagers and millenials are having less sex than older generations. According to a study from San Diego State University, people in their early 20s are two and a half times more likely to be abstinent than people of Generation X were in their early 20s. Modern young adults are also projected to have fewer sex partners than the previous two generations.
Kingsley believes the increase is partially due to decreased access to medical care for minorities and the poor.
“If you look at socioeconomic statistics, you will find an inescapable bottom line, which is that sexually transmitted diseases disproportionately affect minorities and people of low socioeconomic status,” Kingsley said. “The truth is that STDs discriminate against women, the poor and minorities.”
For people of all genders, socioeconomic levels and races, Vanek said she believes education, or a lack thereof, is a large contributing factor to the increase in STDs.
Without a doubt, a lack of education and programming may reduce the sense to take appropriate precautions all the time,” Vanek said. “I think there needs to be better STD education and awareness programs in high schools, [they are] important to begin to understand how STDs are transmitted and to establish safe sex practices early on.”
The Student Health Center’s Safe Sex Condom Distribution Program is addressing one of these practices by providing free condoms for students in the Wellness Center waiting room, exam rooms and in the third floor restrooms of the William Pitt Union. Student groups can also request up to 100 free condoms for their events. Peer educators called PantherWells also distribute “safe sex packets” at their events.
Student Government Board is also making efforts to address the problem. Eric Macadangdang, a junior urban studies and history and philosophy of science major and last year’s chair of the Wellness Committee, said he believes education surrounding safe sex is important and something he wanted SGB to champion.
“You’ll have kids who have never had one minute of sex education coming to a college campus where things are much more free and a lot of people are exploring and partaking in sex. We want to make sure we do so as safely as possible,” Macadangdang said. “I thought it was important for student government to get involved because we are the representative organization for the undergraduate population, and, as you can see, this is a growing issue.”
Last year, SGB hosted a sexual health awareness week in February near Valentine’s Day that included a panel with professionals from the Student Health Center, a resource fair and distribution of condoms. Macadangdang said SGB is planning something similar in February this year.
“I think education is the best way forward, letting as many people know that there are safe ways to partake in sex,” Macadangdang said. “The alternative of education is no education and that goes along with very black-and-white, abstinence and “Just Say No” campaigns that I don’t think are successful or helpful in any way.”
Vanek also stressed the importance of STD screenings, which detect asymptomatic STDs, and being open and honest with one’s partner.
“Everyone needs to take charge of their health, including their sexual health,” Vanek said. “One can protect themselves by having open and frequent discussions with one’s sexual partner and insisting on the correct and consistent use of condoms, all the time. We advise students to also consider STD screening, in that infections may be asymptomatic.”
Vanek said she wanted students to know that services at the Student Health Center are confidential, especially for anyone concerned about societal stigma surrounding STDs. “Students need to know that all services, exams, tests and conversations within the Student Health Service are strictly confidential all of the time,” Vanek said. “I encourage students who are afraid to be tested to schedule an appointment with us and have a frank, open discussion with one of our clinicians.”
Kingsley said that stopping the spread of STDs isn’t complicated, but will involve more funding and resources toward prevention.
“There’s no magic solution,” Kingsley said. “It’s just that we cannot achieve success without a much more comprehensive STD prevention program which involves education, research, teaching, service and perhaps most importantly access to the medical care system.”