STDs in the U.S.: More Disease, Fewer Resources

William Smith

We need to educate the American public that this "silent epidemic" - as STDs are frequently called - is real, in our midst, and we need to prioritize them as part of the national focus on prevention.

This week, leaders from across the country engaged in the ongoing battle to combat the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are gathering in San Antonio to assess the current state of affairs and plot out a path for moving forward.  Unfortunately, we gather in the midst of ever-decreasing resources to do this work at the same time that we are seeing more and more disease.

For example, a short time ago, a strategy was created to “eliminate” syphilis in the U.S.  Now, we see burgeoning cases of syphilis in many parts of the country – particularly in the South and among gay men.  In 2008, there was an 18 percent increase in reported cases of syphilis and among women, a whopping 36 percent increase, compared to cases reported in 2007.  Worse still, it seems increasingly likely that increased syphilis infections – and other STDs such as gonorrhea – are exacerbating the HIV epidemic which itself remains a national health emergency.  Leaders in San Antonio will be using part of their time to lay out the basic principles and actions for a renewed effort on syphilis and it could not come soon enough.

There have also been increased efforts across the country to prioritize screening and treatment for Chlamydia, which with 1.2 million reported cases a year, is the most commonly reported STD in America.  While Chlamydia is easily diagnosed and treated, too many cases go undetected and Chlamydia is one of the primary culprits behind the estimated 24,000 women who become infertile in the U.S. each year as a result of untreated STDs.  In fact, the CDC estimates that the majority of infections each year go undiagnosed.

Then there is gonorrhea.  The good news – if one can call it that – is that reported cases of gonorrhea have stabilized over the past decade – about 350,000 cases a year. However, CDC believes there are probably twice as many actual infections each year.  The frightening thing about gonorrhea, however, is that we are in the process of losing the last line of defense against the disease.  Already, cases of untreatable gonorrhea, resistant to the existing treatment, have surfaced outside the United States, but in a global society, it is but a matter of time before it hits our shores.  We need to invest in the research pipeline now if we hope to avoid a major public health disaster.

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With so much disease on our hands, it is equally unsettling that for the most part, federal investment in STD prevention has essentially been stagnant over the past decade.  For the coming fiscal year, Congress could approve the largest increase in federal investment in domestic STD prevention in more than a decade.  NCSD continues to press the case on Capitol Hill, but this being an election year, the Congressional appropriations process is in a predictable state of disarray.  And at the state level, NCSD’s own research demonstrates a continued decline in STD specific resources that are worrisome at best, and a harbinger of a major STD public health crisis at worst.

Further still, some appalling revelations on STDs made major news last week when the U.S. Government admitted to a conducting a ‘study” in Guatemala in the 1940’s where people were intentionally exposed to syphilis and gonorrhea and many may have never received treatment.  The U.S. Government is doing the right thing by profoundly apologizing for the unethical nature of the study and trying to shine a light – once and for all – on any other such studies that may have occurred.  However, the Guatemala study, coupled with the now infamous Tuskegee syphilis travesty where African-Americans U.S. citizens were left untreated, underscores that the history of U.S efforts to combat STDs is complicated and has in many instances, instilled fear and distrust of the medical establishment.  STDs disproportionately affect communities of color at astonishing rates, and we need to redouble efforts that are aimed at demonstrating to vulnerable communities that the times of the Tuskegee and Guatemala STD experiences are part of a dark past and are anathema to present practice.

So, as our nation’s STD leaders come together this week, we have significant challenges on our hands.  But most importantly, we need to educate the American public that this “silent epidemic” – as STDs are frequently called – is real, in our midst, and we need to prioritize them as part of the national focus on prevention. 

The politics of healthcare reform, and an ignominious display by certain members of Congress about STD spending during the stimulus package debate, served to jettison a much needed national reinvestment in STDs. Sexual health advocates must not be deterred and NCSD and its many members gathering in San Antonio this week will be more vigilant than ever in giving voice to the not-so “silent epidemic” affecting 19 million Americans every year.

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.

Analysis Human Rights

ICE Releases Reports for 18 Migrants Who Died in Detention, Medical Neglect Is Suspected

Tina Vasquez

Though the death reviews released by ICE provide further insight into the conditions inside detention centers, the bigger concern among researchers and advocates is what they don't know.

A new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents the deaths of 18 migrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody from mid-2012 to mid-2015. In some cases, the deaths were likely preventable and the result of “substandard medical care and violations of applicable detention standards.”

These are not the only deaths that occurred, however. ICE acknowledges on its website that 31 deaths have occurred between May 2012 and mid-June of this year. It is unclear whether ICE intends to release information about the additional 13 deaths that have occurred.

Even so, these new findings add to a growing body of evidence showing what HRW calls “egregious violations” of medical care standards in detention centers. A February report found such violations contributed to at least eight in-custody deaths over a two-year period.

The public is just beginning to learn more about the deeply rooted problem, Clara Long, a researcher with Human Rights Watch and the lead researcher on the report, explained to Rewire. Long referenced an ongoing investigation by reporter Seth Freed Wessler at the Nation, which explores the numerous deaths that have occurred inside immigrant-only prisons.

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Though the death reviews released by ICE provide further insight into the conditions inside detention centers, the bigger concern among researchers and advocates is what they don’t know. For example, HRW worked with two independent medical experts to review the 18 death reviews released by ICE. The experts concluded that substandard medical care “probably contributed to the deaths of seven of the 18 detainees, while potentially putting many other detainees in danger as well.” Long told Rewire that the information provided by ICE simply wasn’t enough for their independent medical experts to determine that all 18 deaths were related to inadequate medical care, but that it was “likely.”

So there is the larger, systemic issue of inadequate medical care. Researchers at HRW also don’t know exactly how ICE collects information or why the agency releases information when it does. There’s also the core of the issue, as Long noted to Rewire: that the United States “unnecessarily” detains undocumented immigrants in “disturbing conditions” for prolonged periods of time.

Major Failures Lead to Death

The new HRW report identified two of the most dangerous ways ICE is failing migrants in detention: not following up on symptoms that require assistance and not responding quickly to emergencies. Both failures are illustrated by the case of 34-year-old Manuel Cota-Domingo, who died of heart disease, untreated diabetes, and pneumonia after being detained at the Eloy Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona.

ICE’s death review for Cota-Domingo suggests there was a language barrier and that Cota-Domingo was worried about having to pay for health care, which isn’t surprising given that detention centers make migrants pay for things like phone calls to their attorneys and family members. HRW asked Corrections Corporation of America, the company that runs the Eloy Detention Center, about potential fees for medical care, and it said there are no fees for such services at Eloy. For whatever reason, Cota-Domingo was not aware he had a legal right to access the medical care he needed.

When it became clear to his cellmate that Cota-Domingo was in serious need of medical attention and was having trouble breathing, the cellmate “banged on a wall to get a guard’s attention. His cellmate said he did that for three hours before anyone came to help,” Long said. The researcher told Rewire the death report outlines how investigators checked to see if the banging would have been audible to correctional officers.  It was. “Once [the cellmate] got their attention, our medical experts said this was something that should have been followed up on immediately, but the nurse decided to wait several hours before doing anything. All of these sluggish responses went on for eight hours. This is not how you treat an emergency,” Long said.

As Human Rights Watch noted in the report, “When officers finally notified medical providers of his condition, they delayed evaluating him and finally sent him to the hospital in a van instead of an ambulance. Both medical experts concluded that the combination of these delays likely contributed to a potentially treatable condition becoming fatal.”

In other death reviews by ICE, the agency’s own records show “evidence of the misuse of isolation for people with mental disabilities, inadequate mental health evaluation and treatment, and broader medical care failures.” Tiombe Kimana Carlos, Clemente Mponda, and Jose de Jesus Deniz-Sahagun all committed suicide in ICE detention after showing signs of “serious mental health conditions.” HRW’s independent experts determined that “inadequate mental health care or the misuse of isolation may have significantly exacerbated their mental health problems.”

It’s important to note that none of the death reviews released by ICE admit any wrongdoing, and that’s primarily because they don’t seek to examine whether medical negligence was at play. The reports simply present information about the deaths.

“There is no conclusion drawn, really,” Long told Rewire. “There’s one [report] in particular that even goes beyond that; it doesn’t even take into account the quality of care that led to the death, even though it’s clearly an issue of quality of care. That raises the question: What is the report for? ICE doesn’t conclude the cause. If you read [the death reviews], you can see there’s a lot of detailed information included in them that allows someone with expertise in correctional health care and who is familiar with how these systems should work, to make an assessment about whether care contributed to death, but that’s not something ICE doesat least not in the information we are able to access.”

ICE’s Murky Death-Review Process 

In a statement to Rewire, ICE explained that when a person dies while in the agency’s custody, their “death triggers an immediate internal inquiry into the circumstances.” The summary document ICE releases to the public is “the result of exhaustive case reviews conducted by ICE’s own Office of Detention Oversight (ODO), which was established in 2009 as part of the agency’s comprehensive detention reforms,” Lori K. Haley, a spokesperson with ICE, told Rewire in a prepared statement.

In fact, the ODO was created as a direct result of a series of reforms from the Obama administration after reports of human rights abuses and deaths in detention centers. The death review it produces includes a mix of findings from ICE’s own investigators and from a Beaumont, Texas-based company called Creative Corrections.

According to its website, Creative Corrections serves “local, state and federal government agencies,” offering “training, advising, professional management and consulting services” in “correctional, law enforcement, rule of law, and judicial systems.” The company contracts include the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

“From what we can see from the documents, both ICE and Creative Corrections interview various people involved, check records, do what seems to be a pretty robust investigation for the death review,” Long said. “Unfortunately, in the set of death reviews that we used for this investigation, [the public doesn’t] have access to the Creative Corrections reports or any of the exhibits that go along with them.”

As the ICE spokesperson noted, the summary documents are typically written by ICE staff. The documents released to the public do not include medical records, full reports from Creative Corrections, or any exhibits that would provide more insight into the apparent medical neglect resulting in an estimated 161 people dying in ICE custody since October 2003. Six migrants have died in ICE custody since March 2016, two of whom died at two different detention centers in the same week. The causes of these most recent deathsand whether they can be attributed to medical neglect—is still unknown.

“If we had access to all of the information gathered during these investigations, including the reports from Creative Corrections, they would be very rich sources of information,” Long said.

Long and other researchers are also hoping for more information regarding the deaths that happen just after migrants are released from ICE custody. Teka Gulema, an Ethiopian asylum seeker detained at Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, was released from ICE custody in November 2015 while in the hospital after becoming paralyzed from a bacterial infection acquired in detention. He died in January.

“One concern we have, and it’s a very big fear, is that there are multiple reports of folks who are released from ICE custody while in critical condition,” Long said. “When they die, they are no longer counted as in-custody deaths [by ICE]. We’re worried that’s a loophole being exploitedand for obvious reasons, we don’t have a number in terms of how often this is happening.”

The researcher said she has “no idea” when or why ICE decides to release information, including death reviews.

ICE did not respond to Rewire‘s request for information about its schedule or process for releasing such information.

“Maybe they released the 18 reports because they were cleared for release. Maybe a congressional office asked for them. Maybe they decided to be transparent. It could have been a [Freedom of Information Act] request from the ACLU. I wish I knew, but we really have no idea who decides—or why they decide—to release information, especially without making anyone aware that it’s been released,” the researcher told Rewire.

In April, ICE posted a series of spreadsheets about the inner workings of the detention system on their website that Long said provided a lot of information about how detention operates. The spreadsheets were removed from the site in a matter of days, too soon for many researchers—including HRW—to download them all.

“It’s a big system. We still don’t totally know how it works, which in itself is a major problem,” Long said. “One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned is to always check the ICE website. You never know what you’ll find.”

Rethinking Detention

DHS secretary Jeh Johnson is engaging in what some advocates are calling an “enforcement overdrive,” by funneling more undocumented immigrants into an already overcrowded detention system thanks to the detention bed quota established in 2009. This quota requires 34,000 undocumented migrants be locked up each day. It is in place to ensure more people get deported, though it’s costing taxpayers $2 billion a year while also creating “a profitable market for both private prison corporations and local governments,” the National Immigration Forum has said.

Reporting for the Nation, Michelle Chen recently noted that “migrants are warehoused under convoluted partnerships involving private vendors and state, local, and federal agencies. Homeland Security may contract out security duties to, or use facilities owned by, private vendors—dominated by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group—with preordained headcount distributions ranging from 285 in Newark to more than 2,000 in San Antonio.”

Long told Rewire that 80 percent of migrants currently in detention are in what is considered “mandatory detention,” which, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, means that “non-citizens with certain criminal convictions must be detained by ICE. People who are subject to mandatory detention are not entitled to a bond hearing and must remain in detention while removal proceedings are pending against them.” This also means that those in mandatory detention aren’t allowed to have an individual assessment by ICE of their case, “so they just sit in immigration detention indefinitely,” Long said.

“This system doesn’t work. We’re detaining far too many people for far too long and not determining on an individual level if they should be detained in the first place, taking into account all of the options available,” Long said. Options include being monitored by ICE using telephonic and in-person reporting, curfews, and home visits.

Long joins a long list of undocumented community members, researchers, organizers, activists, and other advocates pushing for the Obama administration—and whoever comes after it—to see detention as a last resort, rather than the only resort.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the disturbing conditions in detention centersthat’s what our report is about. But step one requires taking a step back and rethinking this system and how it’s unnecessary and also abuses vulnerable peoples’ rights,” Long said. “In terms of the legality of treating people this way, under U.S. and international law, people who are detained are entitled to medical treatment. The state has an obligation to provide care to this population. They are failing, and people are dying.”