The Rhode Island Department of Health (HEALTH) leads the state’s effort to reduce infectious disease and support a healthier state. To alert Rhode Islanders of the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), HEALTH released data today showing that the rates of HIV and several other STDs are increasing. In Rhode Island, from 2013 to 2014:

Image/ National Atlas of the United States
Image/ National Atlas of the United States

• The number of infectious syphilis cases increased by 79%. • The number of gonorrhea cases increased by 30%. • The number of newly-identified HIV cases increased by nearly 33%. • New cases of HIV/AIDS and infectious syphilis continued to increase among gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men at a faster rate than in other populations. • Infection rates of all STDs continued to have a greater impact on the African-American, Hispanic, and young adult populations.

“These data send a clear signal that despite the progress we have made in reducing STDs and HIV over the years, there is more work to do,” said Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH, Director Designee at HEALTH. “We are fortunate in Rhode Island to have great partnerships among state agencies, community-based organizations, and healthcare providers to continue to educate, test, and treat for sexually transmitted diseases. This trend reminds us that we cannot become complacent.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, key public health programs helped reduce the transmission of HIV and other STDs. Routine testing of pregnant women has almost eliminated the number of Rhode Island babies born to mothers with HIV. Likewise, needle exchange programs have drastically reduced transmission among injection drug users.

The recent uptick in STDs in Rhode Island follows a national trend. The increase has been attributed to better testing by providers and to high-risk behaviors that have become more common in recent years. High-risk behaviors include using social media to arrange casual and often anonymous sexual encounters, having sex without a condom, having multiple sex partners, and having sex while under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Education about prevention, routine testing, and treatment are priorities for HEALTH. The Department works with other state agencies and community partners to promote free and low-cost HIV and STD testing services throughout Rhode Island and to provide a variety of resources for clinicians to test, treat, and counsel patients and their sexual partners. In addition, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) works under a federal grant to make sexual health education more accessible to high school students, to increase awareness of and education about STDs, to correct misinformation among young people that may put them at higher risk of getting an STD, and to promote evidence-based prevention practices, including abstinence.

“These new data underscore the importance of encouraging young people to begin talking to a doctor, nurse, or health educator about sexual health before becoming sexually active and especially after becoming sexually active,” said Rosemary Reilly-Chammat, EdD, RIDE HIV/AIDS Sexuality Specialist. “It’s never too early to learn about making HIV and STD testing part of routine healthcare. Doctors and nurses are trained to discuss sensitive topics like sex, and conversations with them are confidential. Health educators at schools or community health centers are great resources too.”

STDs are spread through anal, oral, or vaginal sex, and by skin-to-skin contact. People with undiagnosed or untreated STDs can develop long-term health problems and pass the disease to their sexual partners. Anyone who is sexually active can stop the spread of STDs and HIV: • Practice safer sex. Use condoms or a dental dam each time you have sex. Birth control pills and spermicides do not prevent STDs. • Get tested regularly for STDs and HIV. In Rhode Island, routine testing is recommended for anyone age 13 and older. • Know your partner(s)’ sexual health status. Even if you are treated for an STD, you could get re-infected because your partner was not tested and treated too. • If you’ve been diagnosed with an STD, take the medication as prescribed and do not have sex with anyone until your healthcare provider says it is safe to do so. • Avoid sex or close physical contact if you or a sexual partner has symptoms of an STD and see a healthcare provider for treatment.