Alaska's high rate of gonorrhea drops significantly in a year

Health officials credit emphasis on partner notification.

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 17, 2011 

After two years of spiking upward, the number of reported Alaska cases of one common sexually spread disease -- gonorrhea -- is down markedly.

State health officials on Thursday announced the reversal of what had been a steep climb here in gonorrhea cases. They wanted to let health providers and patients know they've made a difference.

Reported gonorrhea infections dropped 23 percent in the first nine months of this year compared with the same period in 2010, the state health bulletin said. That's a significant drop, from 1,005 cases in 2010 down to 770 cases this year.

"This bulletin is to say 'Bravo, everyone. Keep up the good work,' " said Susan Jones, the state STD/HIV program manager.

The Alaska numbers remain high, and health care providers -- and patients -- should stay vigilant, Jones said.

No one knows for sure why the gonorrhea cases dropped. State health officials say there has been more emphasis on notifying partners of infected patients, so that they can get help, too, and not infect others or re-infect the one already treated.

Health care providers may have become more aware of the gonorrhea epidemic.

And increasingly, partners of infected patients are getting the antibiotics that will rid them of gonorrhea without even having to go to the doctor. The patient may be able to get the medicine for them, or a health care provider can call it into the pharmacy without seeing them, state officials say.

"I think the biggest impact of having a gonorrhea outbreak is that it has raised the issue of sexually transmitted infections to the forefront, both publicly and in the eyes of providers," said Clover Simon, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood in Alaska.

Reports of another sexually transmitted disease, chlamydia, also have dropped in Alaska, though not to the same degree as gonorrhea, Jones said. Many more people become infected with chlamydia than gonorrhea, and once they are, they are more susceptible to getting chlamydia again.

Both types of infection can be serious though both are easily treated with a single dose of antibiotics. Someone with both diseases, which is common, needs to take two different antibiotics.

"The reason we are concerned about these diseases is they do cause complications," Jones said.

Chlamydia is the leading cause of infertility in women. A baby born to a woman with gonorrhea is at risk of being blind. In rare cases, untreated gonorrhea can become systemic, leading to joint pain like arthritis.

For 2010, Alaska was third in the country in its rate of gonorrhea cases, with 182 per 100,000 people, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported Thursday. State officials had expected the state to be second.

Alaska had by far the highest rate of chlamydia in the country in 2010, with 862 cases per 100,000 people, the CDC report shows.

Alaska's rank for 2011 won't be known until around this time next year.

Health officials first noticed a spike in gonorrhea in Southwest Alaska in 2008.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

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