Early syphilis rates among people of childbearing age have nearly tripled between 2021 and 2022, according to the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department.
In addition, gonorrhea and early syphilis have been on the rise since 2022, and the rates have surpassed the pre-COVID-19-pandemic era.
Public Health officials are encouraging people to get tested and seek medical care to protect themselves and others from the spread.
Joy Jacobsen, a senior epidemiologist for Public Health, said “there could be multiple factors at play.”
“We did see during the pandemic there was a decrease in utilization of health care across the board,” Jacobsen said.
Most Public Health resources went to battling the COVID-19 pandemic, and individuals may have stayed away from health care clinics to protect themselves.
Jacobsen said it was important not to stigmatize people’s behavior or any one group.
“People have been having sex since the beginning of time,” Jacobsen said.
The focus should be on access to treatment. Public health officials are urging people to get tested and sign up for Medi-Cal benefits.
The report also showed that chlamydia was most likely to be diagnosed in women younger than 25 and that gonorrhea was most likely to be diagnosed in men ages 24 to 35.
Blacks had the highest rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea, and Latinos had the highest rate of early syphilis and HIV.
The highest early syphilis rates were seen in the North County, according to the Public Health Department.
Sexually active women younger than age 25 should get screened annually for chlamydia and gonorrhea, according to the Public Health Department.
Pregnant people should make sure to get screened for sexually transmitted infections at their first prenatal visit, and men who have sex with men should get screened annually for chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV and syphilis, according to the department.
“These trends highlight the importance of getting tested, especially pregnant people at
their initial prenatal appointment and again for syphilis during their third trimester,” said
Michelle Wehmer, an epidemiologist for the Public Health Department and author of the STI report.
Syphilis can be passed on to babies.
The information came from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department Sexually Transmitted Infections Annual Report covering 2018 to 2022.
Of the 1,749 chlamydia cases in 2022, half were in the North County, 38% were in the South County and 12% were in the central area. About two in three cases were women. Of the 572 gonorrhea cases in 2022, 43% were in the North County, 43% were in the South County and 14% were central, according to the Public Health Department.
About three in five gonorrhea cases were men.
Santa Barbara County Second District Supervisor Laura Capps said she is focused on access to health care and quality health and sex education in schools.
“The disparities in STI rates among different racial and ethnic groups are especially disconcerting to me,” Capps said. “I applaud the efforts of our Public Health Department to raise the alarm bell and provide simple actions people can take to reverse these rising trends — beginning with talking with your partner and your doctor as well as getting tested.”
Capps said language barriers and cultural stigma can be significant barriers to seeking care and that it is important to create inclusive and welcoming environments in both health care and educational settings to combat preventable diseases.
“The high rates of early syphilis and HIV among Latinos and Latinas highlight the need for culturally sensitive and accessible health care services and meaningful sex education,” Capps said.
According to Planned Parenthood of California Central Coast, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically impacted testing rates in 2020 and 2021.
Fewer tests were performed and populations such as college-age students were predominantly “away from the area,” the organization said in a statement.
Planned Parenthood has seen an increase in the positivity rate for syphilis during the past three years.
“We have also seen a disparity in positivity rates for patients who identify as Hispanic or Latino,” Luz Reyes-Martin, vice president of community engagement, said in a statement.
Planned Parenthood said increased funding from the state has led to increased availability of testing.
“PPCCC is working with the California Department of Public Health to better understand testing and positivity rates for STIs, and it is expected that with the ramping up of testing, we will continue to see rates for gonorrhea, chlamydia, Hepatitis C and syphilis trending upwards due to less testing during COVID,” according to Planned Parenthood.