KING COUNTY, WA - Health officials expressed alarm at rising gonorrhea rates in King County over the past year. "This is the sharpest increase in gonorrhea in several years," said Dr. Alonzo Plough, Director of Public Health — Seattle & King County. "This latest information gives us cause for serious concern."
Based on infections reported from January to April this year, health officials predict 1,500 to 1,700 gonorrhea cases will be reported in 2001. This is a sizable increase over the 1,222 cases of the sexually transmitted disease noted in 2000, which in turn was a substantial rise over an average of 935 cases reported each year from 1996 through 1999.
"We are anticipating 90 to 100 cases per 100,000 King County residents in 2001," said Dr. Hunter Handsfield, director of Public Health's STD Control Program, "compared to 54 cases per 100,000 in 1999. That's more than a 60% increase," he continued. "We haven't seen gonorrhea rates this high since 1993, when the rate was 98 cases per 100,000."
In response to the outbreak, Public Health has advised King County health care providers, especially emergency room physicians, to be alert to symptoms of gonorrhea in their patients and to perform routine tests for the disease in sexually active young persons. Studies are underway to learn more about the reasons for the change.
"This is a reminder that other STDs continue to be important health problems in the AIDS era," said Plough. "We can't overemphasize the importance of abstinence, condoms, and other safe sex practices."
Gonorrhea is one of the most frequent sexually transmitted diseases. The most common symptoms are discharge from the penis in men and from the vagina in women, often with painful urination. The most important complication is tubal infection in women, called pelvic inflammatory disease. Pelvic inflammatory disease is a painful illness that often leads to infertility, ectopic (tubal) pregnancy, or chronic abdominal pain.
The current rise in gonorrhea has predominantly affected African American men and their sex partners. According to Plough and Handsfield, the underlying risks for gonorrhea and other STDs are related to poverty, access to health care, and discrimination.
"Although this recent increase in rates is occurring primarily in heterosexual men, gonorrhea and other STDs also continue at very high rates in men who have sex with men," said Handsfield.
Handsfield also expressed concern about transmission of human immunodeficiency virus, the cause of AIDS. Like most STDs, gonorrhea markedly increases the chance of catching or transmitting HIV.
Presently, health officials have no explanation for the resurgence in gonorrhea. Reported chlamydia rates are up only slightly, according to Handsfield. He said the apparent rise in chlamydia is partly due to more frequent testing for the infection. "But gonorrhea testing hasn't changed, as far as we know. The increase is real," he said.
Information about gonorrhea or other STDs, including information about the nearest Public Health clinic, is available at Public Health's STD Hotline, 206-205-7837 (STDS), and at Public Health's STD website at www.kingcounty.gov/health/std
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