2009 STD Data in the United States: Not a Pretty Picture

William Smith

New data suggest mixed progress and ongoing challenges in the United States when it comes to the three most commonly reported STDs: Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis.

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its annual update of sexually transmitted disease (STD) data for the United States.  There are more than 19 million STD infections every year in this country. The 2009 data suggest a mixed bag of both progress and ongoing challenges to achieving sexual health in the nation when it comes to the three most commonly reported STDs: Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, and Syphilis.

In 2009, some modicum of good news can be reported for Gonorrhea as there were the fewest recorded cases than in any other year since the CDC began tracking the disease in 1941.  The CDC reports 301,174 cases of Gonorrhea being reported in 2009, down 10 percent since 2008 and down 17 percent since 2006.  Still, we should not be breaking out the champagne – 300,000 cases of any disease is too much, but as I have previously written, we are on the verge of having a Gonorrhea epidemic that resists existing treatments.  With that frightening perspective, is there any comfort with the fact last year nearly 100 out of every 100,000 Americans had Gonorrhea?  

However, with both syphilis and Chlamydia, reported cases again increased in 2009.  Nearly 1.25 million cases of Chlamydia were reported in 2009 – an increase of 3 percent since last year and up 19 percent since 2006.  The CDC credits increased testing for identifying a larger number of infections, but also indicate that screening remains too low as there are likely nearly 3 million actual new infections each year.  So while increased testing may explain why reported cases of Chlamydia are increasing, it should also serve as a clarion call to ensure that screening and treatment are consistently expanded and that health care reform can help that process along significantly.

For syphilis, the nation continues to experience a disturbingly dramatic resurgence in the disease with rates steadily increasing since 2001.  In 2009, 13,997 cases of primary and secondary syphilis were reported to the CDC, an increase of 5 percent over the previous year and up 39% since 2006. A glimmer of good news is that for the first time in five years, syphilis declined among all women by 7 percent.

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Just below the layers of these numbers, however, lie some of the most profound health disparities of any diseases in this country.  With all three reportable STDs, shockingly high patterns of health inequities persist, particularly among African-Americans.  While blacks represent only 14 percent of the population, they experienced 71 percent of all Gonorrhea cases in 2009, 48 percent of all reported Chlamydia cases, and 52 percent of all primary and secondary syphilis cases.  Health inequities in syphilis infection are also significant among gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM), with nearly two-thirds of all syphilis cases in 2009 occurring in this population. 

While sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in and of themselves are not discriminatory, additional factors in society – including inadequate access to health care, poverty, stigma, discrimination, and homophobia – conspire to create unjust and shameful health inequities among communities of color and gay men.  Further, the persistence of such high rates of STDs among African-Americans and gay men are getting worse, not better, and yet, the resources to combat the situation have only declined over the past decade.

For example, when adjusted for inflation, federal resources for STD prevention and treatment have declined by 17 percent since 2000 and state budget crises have seen state resources for these efforts dwindle.  Yet, the CDC estimates that STDs cost the U.S health care system upwards of $16.4 billion a year.

This makes abundantly clear that our failure to invest in prevention up front means we pay exponentially on the back end.  And while the lame duck Congress finishes its business this year – or punts their constitutionally mandated role of controlling the federal government’s purse to the next Congress – both Houses of Congress and the President have recognized the need for increased resources to combat STDs in this country.  So whoever finishes the appropriations process for 2011, this recent data should serve as sufficient evidence for why additional resources are needed for state and local health departments and their partners to get the nation on the road to being sexually healthier.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Group Wants National Abortion Data Reporting Law

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice activists claim that despite the evidence, the number of complications from abortion is higher than is being reported. States that track abortion care data have shown the procedure to be exceedingly safe.

A leading anti-choice organization is calling for a national database of abortion statistics and increased reporting requirements for states—proposals seen as part of a strategy to justify laws restricting access to abortion care.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-choice law known as HB 2. The ruling relied heavily on research that showed abortion care was a safe and well regulated procedure. Anti-choice activists have long disputed those claims.

Clarke Forsythe, acting president of Americans United for Life (AUL), told Politico that there is not enough data on abortion. “The abortion advocates like to talk in vague terms about abortion but we need specifics,” Forsythe said. “We don’t have a national abortion data collection and reporting law.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has collected “abortion surveillance” data since 1969. The CDC published the most recent report on abortion statistics in 2012.

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Abortion surveillance reports are created by compiling data from health agencies, provided voluntarily to the CDC, in all 50 states as well as the District of Columbia and New York City. The data includes deaths from abortion related complications, but does not include the number of complications that don’t result in deaths.

Reporting requirements for abortion statistics vary from state to state, with 46 states requiring that abortion providers submit regular reports, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Most states report the number of abortion procedures performed as well as the type of procedure, the gestation of the pregnancy, and demographic data of the patient.

There are 27 states that require providers to report the number of complications from abortion procedures.

The self-described “legal architect” of the anti-choice movement, AUL has been heavily involved in lobbying for state and federal laws that restrict access to abortion. The organization creates copycat legislation and distributes anti-choice proposals to state lawmakers, who then push the measures through legislatures.

Forsythe took a victory lap Monday for the organization’s role in promoting bills from the AUL’s “playbook of pro-life legislation” that were introduced this year in state legislatures. “AUL continued to assist states considering health and safety standards to protect women in abortion clinics,” Forsythe said in a statement.

Dozens of bills to increase reporting requirements have been introduced in state legislatures over the past several years. These proposals include several types of reporting requirements for abortion providers, and many of the provisions are similar to those found in AUL model legislation.

Arizona legislators in 2010 passed SB 1304, which required abortion providers to submit annual reports to the state and required the state Department of Health Services (DHS) to publish an annual report.

The Republican-backed legislation is similar to copycat legislation drafted that same year by AUL.

Since the law’s passage there have been very few complications resulting from abortion procedures reported in the state: from 2011-2014, less than 1 percent of abortions procedures in the state resulted in complications.

Arizona reported that 137 patients experienced complications out of 12,747 abortion procedures in 2014; 102 patients experienced complications out of 13,254 abortion procedures in 2013; 76 patients had complications out of 13,129 abortion procedures in 2012; 60 patients experienced complications out of 14,401 abortion procedures in 2011.

Dr. Daniel Grossman, a physician at the University of California, San Francisco who studied the impact of HB 2 for the Texas Policy Evaluation Project (TxPEP), told Politico that abortion has been shown to be exceptionally safe medical procedure.

“There’s already a lot of data that have been published documenting how safe abortion is in the U.S.,” Grossman said.“The abortion complication rate is exceedingly low.”

Anti-choice activists claim that despite the evidence, the number of complications from abortion is higher than is being reported. Joe Pojman, the executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, told Politico that “better data” is needed.

Texas has required reporting of the number of complications from abortion procedures since 2013, and the data has shown that abortion complications are exceedingly rare. There were 447 complications out of 63,849 procedures in 2013 and 777 complications out of 54,902 procedures in 2014.

Pojman said that the Texas data “defies common sense” and that the complications are “are much smaller than what one would expect.”

The Texas abortion statistics reveal that it is safer to have an abortion than to carry a pregnancy to term in the state. Between 2008 and 2013, the most recent years for which data is available, there were 691 maternal deaths in Texas, compared to one death due to abortion complications between 2008 and 2014.

“There’s no sign that there’s a hidden safety problem happening in Texas,” Grossman said.

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