The number of new gonorrhea cases in Alaska increased by 51 percent in 2017 compared to the year before, a statistic that's concerning to public health officials, the state health department said.
"This is kind of alarming," said Susan Jones, HIV and STD program manager for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. "Alaskans need to know what's going on to protect themselves."
According to preliminary data, Alaska had the second highest rate of gonorrhea in the country last year, behind Mississippi. In 2016, Alaska ranked fourth for the sexually transmitted disease.
If left untreated, gonorrhea can result in serious health problems, including pregnancy complications and pelvic inflammatory disease, a painful infection of a female's reproductive organs. It can also lead to infertility in both men and women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alaska has had high rates of gonorrhea for years, exceeding the national average. The state also continues to struggle with chlamydia, ranking first for the highest rate of the STD in the country since 2001. This year, the state health department warned of a syphilis outbreak, with Alaska recording more cases so far in 2018 than in all of last year.
And for gonorrhea, already bad statistics got worse last year.
Data published by the health department Thursday confirmed that in 2017 Alaska did in fact record its highest rate of gonorrhea in at least the past two decades.
For months, public health officials have warned Alaskans of a gonorrhea outbreak in the state, encouraging people who think they might have come in contact with the STD to get tested.
The department cautioned that the gonorrhea outbreak is ongoing, in line with a national trend of increasing rates of STDs.
While Jones didn't have an exact count on Thursday of gonorrhea cases recorded in Alaska so far this year, she said she expects the year-end total to fall between 2017 and 2016 numbers.
In 2017, the state recorded 2,190 gonorrhea cases or about 297 cases among every 100,000 Alaskans, compared to of 197 per 100,000 the year before. Preliminary data shows that nationally, there were 169 cases of gonorrhea for every 100,000 Americans in 2017.
Gonorrhea, a treatable bacterial infection, is most prevalent among people ages 15 to 30, Jones said.
About 58 percent of the gonorrhea cases last year in Alaska affected people age 29 and younger. The cases were split evenly between men and women. Southwest Alaska had the highest rate of gonorrhea followed by Northern Alaska and then the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna regions, the state health department reported.
It's not completely clear what's leading to the increases in gonorrhea in Alaska, Jones said.
It might be better and more testing, she said. Alaskans might be having more unprotected sex with more partners. People might have less access to health care services or resources for prevention.
"It's probably a combination," Jones said.
The tally of gonorrhea cases from the state only represents infections that are diagnosed. It's unknown how many people have gonorrhea but don't know it.
Some women and most men with gonorrhea have no symptoms at all, the CDC says.
Anyone can get the STD through unprotected anal, oral and vaginal sex with an infected partner, Jones said.
"If you're going to have sex and you don't know whether someone has an STD — protect yourself or don't do it," she said.
Jones said it's vital to educate people about how to prevent infection, including using condoms — especially with partners who have not been tested for STDs.
"It's time to start talking," she said. "With this many infections, this should be a dinner conversation."