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STDs on the rise, but resources are out there 

Queer&There

Nationally, regionally and locally — whether we identify as LGBTQ or not — it’s becoming clear we need to be more cautious when it comes to sexual health. In recent weeks, cases of syphilis, a highly dangerous sexually transmitted disease (STD), have reportedly been increasing across the U.S., with “several clusters” of cases reported in North Dakota toward the end of October.

Plus, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report released Oct. 8 claims that 2018 saw an “all-time high” of combined cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. The Centers’ annual Sexually Transmitted Disease Surveillance Report paints a grim picture of sexual health in the United States, especially for vulnerable populations. It suggests that decreased condom use among young people and gay and bisexual men may have something to do with the overall increase in STDs, along with local and state budget cuts to STD programs, as well as drug use, poverty and stigma.

Colorado ranked below national rates for the three most common STDs, but we were still middling among other states.

“We are really fortunate to have very supportive Coloradans who believe in sexual and reproductive health care,” says Adrienne Mansanares, chief experience officer for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. She cites, as an example, the comprehensive sexual education bill that became law earlier this year, that mandates “if schools are going to be using a sex education curriculum, it has to be inclusive of all communities,” in Mansanares’ words. The bill also emphasized consent education.

Fact is, the CDC data comes from 2018, and a lot will change once we see the effects of this legislation — even beyond Colorado. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health and rights research organization, 85 sex education bills were introduced in 34 states and the District of Columbia in 2019, “the vast majority of which — thanks to the work of state advocates and policymakers — support young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.” Ten of these bills were enacted. Though Colorado still doesn’t require that schools teach sex ed at all, Mansanares is optimistic that this legislation will have an effect on Colorado’s infection rate.

The LGBTQ community is at special risk for STDs, in part because we’re at risk for nearly everything. We’re more likely to experience homelessness and sexual assault, more likely to turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism, more likely to suffer from mental health issues — all of which contribute to the risk for STDs. But we’re also less likely to know what resources we need to address our sexual health, let alone where to find them.

Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains offers many such resources: STD screenings and medications at a discounted rate, HIV prevention medications PrEP and PEP, and LGBTQ and allied staff members who don’t discriminate.

But even with help available and inclusive sex ed now mandated, Mansanares says, “There’s a national Title X gag rule that you may have heard about, and national budget cuts that are taking much-needed public health dollars out of the reproductive and sexual health care arena. And of course, when those cuts occur, they disproportionately harm low-income communities, rural communities, LGBT communities, and communities of color.”

These cuts, she adds, make it harder for clinics to market their services, somany people in our own community don’t know that resources exist for them at Planned Parenthood and beyond — or they may feel shame in reaching out to those services.

When it comes to the rise of cases of STDs, Mansanares says, “You can see the correlation of funding cuts. You can see the correlation of harmful, hateful rhetoric and the national narrative changing. And then those infection rates go up.”

It’s important to continue to consider our sexual health and that of our community if we want to see those rates decrease. “We know that [STD] rates go way down,” Mansanares says, “when people feel safe and comfortable to go get sexual and reproductive health care on a regular basis, from a place where they feel welcome.”

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