After years of escalating gonorrhea infection rates, Washington cases of the sexually transmitted disease are the highest in a generation and more than triple the number found less than decade ago.
In Pierce County, the rate is even worse and prompted local health officials to issue a cautionary advisory to health care providers and the public after 777 new gonorrhea infections were reported in the first half of this year. That’s a 39-percent increase over the number of cases in the first six months of 2016.
Statewide, officials in 2009 reported 2,268 gonorrhea cases. In 2016, there were 8,146 — the most since 1987.
The state was 26th in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s rankings of infection rates using 2015 data, but Pierce County’s rate would put it near those of the worst 10 states.
State and local officials said two factors tend to drive the spread of gonorrhea in Pierce County higher than the state average: the relatively young median age of the population and the presence of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Statistics specific to JBLM weren’t available, but a 2010-2014 study found the military’s gonorrhea rate at 132 cases per 100,000 people. That’s well above the Washington state rate, which in 2016 was the highest in years with 113 cases per 100,000 people. Pierce County’s rate was considerably higher than either figure last year — 142 cases per 100,000 people last year. It’s expected to be and higher still by the end of this year.
The findings have local and state officials scrambling to turn back the uptick of infections.
One way has been targeting disproportionately affected groups for awareness and prevention campaigns.
The county’s health department is one of a few in the state where each gonorrhea case is investigated by disease intervention specialists who try to interview every infected patient to find related cases for treatment. About 96 percent of gonorrhea patients reported to the county by health care providers are contacted by investigators, and 72 percent are interviewed.
Pierce County officials also are expanding treatment programs.
Three pharmacies in the county allow doctors to call in prescriptions for the partners of gonorrhea patients. The program, called expedited partner therapy, also is in use elsewhere to distribute medicine for chlamydia, which has about four times as many cases statewide as gonorrhea but is spreading at a slower rate.
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department also is bringing doctors from family medicine residencies to its Lincoln District offices twice a week to see patients found by STD investigations.
“We know we have a problem, and we’re working really hard to address that,” said Nigel Turner, communicable disease director at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
Turner and Mark Aubin, the STD controller for the state Department of Health, both said public health agencies lack resources to do enough testing and treatment of STDs. Some nonprofit agencies have stepped in. Planned Parenthood is offering some testing to both straight and gay men, Aubin noted.
Aubin said people who suspect they might have been infected should see their doctor or another agency as soon as possible, since not all cases of gonorrhea or other STDs show visible symptoms.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do is not have people go into emergency rooms with an STD,” he said. “They can take care of it there, but it’s a very expensive option.”