The silent infection

Public health officials are warning that gonorrhea and chlamydia rates in Montana are increasing faster than at any time in recent history.

"In some areas, it is quite alarming," says Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services STD Division Supervisor Laurie Kops.

Sexually transmitted diseases are the most frequently reported communicable diseases in Montana. In 2012, DPHHS tallied nearly 4,000 such new infections.

Chlamydia is the most commonly reported communicable disease in the state. It's also the most frequently reported STD in the country. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that annually there are 820,000 new chlamydia cases across the nation and that fewer than half of those are detected. Because chlamydia often shows no symptoms, it's referred to as the silent infection.

Though typically asymptomatic, chlamydia can permanently damage female reproductive organs, causing infertility. Pregnant women can also pass chlamydia to their infants during birth.

Between 2000 and 2012 in Montana, the annual rate of new chlamydia cases doubled. The increase was particularly striking last year, Kops says. "We jumped 400 cases in 2012 compared to 2011." And so far this year the infection shows no signs of slowing. Through June 30, Montana public health officials recorded 1,857 new chlamydia infections.

Gonorrhea also appears to be spreading. Symptoms of the infection in men include a burning sensation when urinating and white, yellow or green discharge from the penis. Women, too, can experience pain when urinating and increased vaginal discharge. Thus far in 2013, DPHHS has tracked 132 gonorrhea cases. That's up from 108 all of last year, Kops says.

Lake, Roosevelt and Rosebud counties, which all lie in Indian Country, have been particularly hard hit; 40 percent of all gonorrhea infections in 2012 were detected in Roosevelt County.

Kops says that increased STD testing on American Indian reservations is in part responsible for the rising numbers. She adds, however, "There is definitely more gonorrhea in the state."

In Missoula, City-County Health Department Director Ellen Leahy says that STD rates are holding steady. Last year, Leahy's department recorded 12 gonorrhea cases and 439 chlamydia infections. While Missoula isn't experiencing an increase akin to that of some other Montana communities, Leahy says communicable diseases don't easily stay confined. "These infections don't respect jurisdictional boundaries," she says.

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