Gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis are on the rise in the Pacific Northwest. While these common bacterial infections have been around for hundreds of years, local physicians are now facing a disturbing influx of all three diseases, along with brand-new risks to patients – and unfamiliar challenges in treating them.
One Willamette Valley clinic has reported a 71 percent increase in cases of gonorrhea treated between 2015 and 2016, and that’s not the only alarming trend regarding STDs – far more dangerous than the current outbreak is the fact that some infections are now much more difficult, if not impossible, to treat. In response to this public health crisis, medical researchers at Oregon State University are working hard to find a vaccine to prevent STDs that are slowly, but surely, becoming resistant to traditional antibiotics.
While the Oregon Health Authority reported 9,861 cases of chlamydia in 2007, there were a staggering 17,618 cases reported in 2016. Cases of gonorrhea tripled between 2007, when there were 1,239 cases, and 2016, when 4,367 were reported. There were 576 cases of syphilis reported in Oregon last year, while only 26 were discovered in 2006.
According to the Northwest News Network, instances of gonorrhea have also increased in surrounding states. In late August, the source stated that Washington health authorities reported a 13 percent increase in the illness over the past three years, while Idaho health authorities reported an increase of an incredible 280 percent.
Doctors at Corvallis area clinics have also seen an increase in infections. According to Charlie Fautin, the Deputy Director of the Benton County Health Department, chlamydia is the most commonly seen STD at the public health center. He explains they saw 426 cases of the disease in 2016, and 400 cases in 2015, as opposed to only about 200 in 2007.
“Benton County’s rate is a little higher than neighboring counties because we have more students,” says Fautin. The monthly rate, he adds, varies depending on student presence, “and goes down between terms”.
A drastic increase in gonorrhea was recorded at the public health department: in 2007, 17 cases were reported; in 2015, 28 cases; then in 2016, 48 – an increase of a whopping 71 percent in just one year.
“We are not seeing drug-resistant gonorrhea in our area,” says Fautin, though, “it’s a big concern.”
Syphilis, says Dr. Alicia Rogers, a naturopathic physician who has worked for three years at Corvallis’ Core Vitality Clinic, has also been reported in Corvallis. Though from 2007 to 2009, the clinic saw no cases of that particular infection, in 2015, they saw eight patients with the disease, and in 2016, three. This increase correlates with OHA records, which state that 576 cases of syphilis were reported in the state last year, as opposed to only 26 cases in 2006.
The Center for Disease Control describes similar findings, reporting 2 million cases of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis in the U.S. – the highest number of all three reported in history; 468,514 cases of gonorrhea, 1,598,354 cases of chlamydia, and 27,814 cases of syphilis were reported in all.
According to OSU researchers seeking an end to the infection, gonorrhea is a “superbug” that affects 80 million new people worldwide each year.
“The rise in gonorrhea nationally is particularly alarming,” reported the CDC in its 2016 fact sheet, referencing the “growing threat” of drug resistance to the last remaining recommended gonorrhea treatment.
Treating Drug-Resistant Gonorrhea
Dr. Alicia Rogers has 15 years of experience under her belt as both a fully trained physician and naturopathic doctor.
“Normally, I’m not picking up much,” she says in regards to local cases of gonorrhea. Yet recently, she says she has seen more than usual.
“In general, it’s getting much harder,” Rogers says of treating the infection. Since 2010, she has been following a trend of antibiotic resistance in the bacteria. Her clinic has altered treatment protocol according to changes that have occurred in the infection over the past seven years.
In 2010, the standard treatment for gonorrhea included a few different options of antibiotics, but eventually, Rogers says, they “stopped being successful.” The clinic began treating patients with the antibiotic doxycycline, which only worked for a few years until the bacteria became resistant. The next treatment used was cefixime, until it stopped working for people in 2012.
“Now,” says Rogers, “we are using ceftriaxone in combination with [an IV] shot of Azithromycin.”
This treatment has its own issues. “Some people won’t bring it up,” she says of patients who find out they have symptoms of gonorrhea, “because they don’t want the shot.” But the CDC concurs that this is the only viable treatment left. “In the United States today, only one recommended treatment option remains – a combination of the antibiotics azithromycin and ceftriaxone.”
Developing a Vaccine
Since gonorrhea in particular may soon become immune to treatment, scientists have teamed up to fight the disease. At OSU, a group of researchers are working to create a vaccine for the infection with hopes that by the time that there are no working antibiotic treatments left, a shot can be administered to protect Oregonians – along with the rest of the country – from getting sick in the first place.
Through their investigation, which was published in the national Journal of Bacteriology, the OSU researchers identified a pair of proteins that may be effective in helping to create a vaccine for gonorrhea. OSU’s continuing efforts in this area are supported by the National Institute of Health.
According to a report released by OSU’s News & Research Communications, gonorrhea is dangerous to women’s reproductive systems as well as to babies in utero if it is left untreated. Infections in women may lead to infertility, endometriosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease, and ectopic pregnancies and blindness in babies can occur if women with untreated gonorrhea become pregnant. In men, gonorrhea can cause epididymitis. While many people do not initially show typical symptoms of the disease, this makes it no less destructive.
The CDC says that STD screening is just as critical as it’s always been, and advises that people of any gender who have male sex partners wear condoms and request annual HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea tests. Pregnant women should request tests for syphilis, HIV, chlamydia, and Hepatitis B early in pregnancy. And as syphilis is becoming commonplace in the Northwest, people should get tested for that as well.
By Kiki Genoa