DES MOINES — Reported cases of gonorrhea have more than doubled in Iowa over four years, according to state public health department data.
There were 3,600 cases of the sexually transmitted disease in Iowa in 2017, the state’s preliminary data show. That would be a 145 percent increase since 2013, and a one-year increase of more than 38 percent.
“It doesn’t appear to be one issue only. It seems like there are a number of factors involved,” said George Walton, the state public health department’s sexually transmitted disease program manager.
Walton said gonorrhea now is showing up in more segments of Iowa’s population.
Gonorrhea diagnoses are increasing among both men and women, but faster among men, according to the department, which said that likely indicates an increase among men who have sex with men.
The disease primarily impacts young Iowans: ages 15 to 34 account for 80 percent of diagnoses, the department found.
It also disproportionately impacts Iowa’s black population, which accounts for nearly 30 percent of diagnoses even though it accounts for only 3.5 percent of the state’s population.
Walton said further analysis is needed to determine which factors impact the various populations that are disproportionately affected.
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He said more robust testing also could be boosting diagnoses. He said the department is encouraging medical facilities to be more thorough in their testing for gonorrhea.
“We’re starting to find more infections that in the past would have been missed,” Walton said. “That’s a part of it — certainly not all of it.”
Walton said the department cannot determine whether increased sexual activity or risky sexual behaviors — like failing to use protection — are contributing to the increase in gonorrhea diagnoses. He said increases in diagnoses of other STDs like syphilis have been linked to increases in sexual activity as a result of more common use of social media dating sites, so it’s “conceivable” other STDs like gonorrhea are increasing for the same reason.
“That doesn’t mean that’s the case. I just means we don’t have that comprehensive information one way or the other,” Walton said.
In many cases, according to the Mayo Clinic, a gonorrhea infection causes no symptoms. When they do occur, they can affect multiple sites on the body but usually appear in the genital tract. Left untreated, gonorrhea could lead to infertility or an increased risk of HIV and AIDS. It is usually treated with antibiotics.