MANKATO — While Minnesota saw all-time high rates of sexually transmitted diseases in 2015, Blue Earth County’s rates plateaued for the first time in several years.
Blue Earth County actually had a slight dip in chlamydia rates compared to last year, according to a Minnesota Department of Health report released Monday. During the same time period, the state as a whole had a 7 percent increase in chlamydia cases.
Even with the decrease locally — from 481 to 475 cases per 100,000 people — Blue Earth County remains in the top four for chlamydia rates statewide. Only Hennepin, Ramsey and Beltrami counties ranked worse.
Reasons for Blue Earth County’s consistently high rates of chlamydia are difficult to pin down, said Jen Aulwes, communications director for Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota.
“We’ve seen these rates rise year after year, and it just seems to be something we haven’t been able to wrap our arms around,” she said.
Among the factors that might influence STD rates is a population’s age demographics, education level and access to health care.
Statewide, people between the ages of 15-24 accounted for the vast majority — 64 percent — of chlamydia cases reported in 2015. There is speculation that a high number of college-aged people in a county might lead to higher rates of STDs, said Jessica Sheehy, physician’s assistant at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato’s infectious diseases department.
“Probably one of the biggest is that we’re a college town,” she said in reference to the three colleges that call Mankato home. “That’s probably a major key portion of it.”
Student outreach, then, should be looked at as the first step in addressing the high rates, she said.
That 15-24 age range consists of more than just college students though, said Lori Marti, health promotion educator at Minnesota State University. High school students and college graduates also would make up a good portion of the range.
Marti pointed to several initiatives put on by the college’s health staff and students that are helping address STDs on campus. The efforts include condom distribution by student advocates along with partnerships with the county and Rural AIDS Action Network.
Although chlamydia is far and away the most rampant STD in Minnesota, the report also includes gonorrhea and syphilis rates. Joined together, the three bacterial STDs totaled 25,986 cases in 2015 — a 6 percent increase from 2014.
Gonorrhea and syphilis, however, didn’t factor into the increase. Both either remained stable or decreased from 2014 numbers.
Blue Earth County placed 13th in gonorrhea rates with 41 cases per 100,000. The highest rates were seen in Hennepin, Ramsey, Olmsted and Cass counties.
Sheehy said it’s possible gonorrhea rates are lower than chlamydia because people can get diagnosed with the latter and then treated for both.
“We’re taught in medicine that if you come back positive for one, you’re treated for both,” she said. “Chances are good that you tend to have them both at the same time.”
Even with skyrocketing rates of chlamydia, concerns remain that people aren’t getting tested enough. Both Aulwes and Sheehy said it’s fair to assume that many more people have an STD without showing symptoms.
“It’s entirely possible that there’s a good percentage of the population out there that doesn’t know they have chlamydia and gonorrhea,” Sheehy said.
Simply not knowing is one problem, but Aulwes said a fear of the invasiveness of the testing also keeps some from coming in to get checked. Testing for the bacterial STDs is often as straightforward as a cheek swab or urine test, she said.
Whether through ignorance or deliberate choice, leaving STDs unaddressed can have serious consequences, including infertility. Encouragingly, chlamydia and its related bacterial STDs remain highly treatable once detected. That’s just one of many reasons health professionals recommend testing at least once per year — or after each new sexual partner.
In many ways, regular STD testing should be looked at as just another health checkup, Aulwes said.
“One of our goals is to reduce stigma and make people understand that STD testing is just one more thing you can do to take care of your health,” she said.
— This story has been updated