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Rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea on the rise in Alaska

Tegan Hanlon

Data released Wednesday confirmed that Alaska's rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea continued to climb last year, with preliminary numbers showing that the influx has yet to slow down in 2014, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services.

"There's a lot of people exposed to these infections, and they need to be careful," said Susan Jones, HIV and STD program manager for the department. "Infections are not benign. They interfere with pregnancy. They can infect the fetus. They can be silent but very problematic."

In 2013, the department reported 5,792 new cases of chlamydia and 1,135 new cases of gonorrhea. The rates of both sexually transmitted diseases increased from the year before and soared far above national rates -- by 80 percent in the case of chlamydia. Young people, women and minorities suffered most from infection. The diseases had the highest prevalence in the northern and southwestern regions of Alaska, according to the department.

Last month, the department published data on the high rate of syphilis in 2013, underscoring the outbreak's link to an uptick in HIV cases. Most cases were in Anchorage men, with nearly all those infected identifying as bisexual or gay or having had sex with other men. Many said they found their sexual partners online, the department has said.

Jones said she did not have that level of detail on the state's chlamydia and gonorrhea infections because of the sheer number of cases and the time it would take disease investigators to interview patients. She hesitated to attribute the increase to a growing outbreak, though, saying it could be that providers are simply testing more for STDs.

Alaska has long struggled with gonorrhea and chlamydia. Since 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ranked the state with the highest or second-highest rate of chlamydia. Rates of gonorrhea were down by mid-2012 but have quickly picked back up. Preliminary rankings put Alaska first in chlamydia rates for 2013 and fifth for gonorrhea, Jones said.

"We don't like to be ranked in the top 10," Jones said. "It's not one of the things you want to be first in."

Gonorrhea and chlamydia are transmitted through anal, oral and vaginal sex. In women, they can result in pelvic inflammatory disease, a painful infection of the reproductive organs. The diseases can lead to infertility in men and women and infections in newborns.

If detected, gonorrhea and chlamydia are treatable and curable, Jones said.

"What we do ask is that people use protection," she said. "Take care of yourself, take care of your partner, get tested."

Reach Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@adn.com or 257-4589.


By TEGAN HANLON
thanlon@adn.com