In the past eight years, rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in San Luis Obispo County have nearly doubled, and studies show that Cal Poly plays a huge role in the increase.
“Cal Poly is the epicenter,” San Luis Obispo County Health Department (SLOCHD) epidemiologist Ann McDowell said. “We’ve done rate maps of the county [where chlamydia outbreaks happen], and Cal Poly glows red.”
The concern is not just in the county, but nationwide. According to a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 2013 to 2017, national case rates of syphilis nearly doubled while gonorrhea cases went up 67 percent.
While the causes of national rate increases are more complicated, San Luis Obispo experts can look to the presence of students for many of the answers.
“The No. 1 risk factor for getting an STD is being under the age of 24 … so Cal Poly students are a large portion of that population,” McDowell said. “They’re more likely to be sexually active but have less of a feel for their partner’s overall health than perhaps older people might.”
There have been steady increases in the rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia and oftentimes flaws in education systems are to blame, according to McDowell.
“Studies have shown us that where they teach abstinence in sex ed[ucation], teen pregnancy goes up and STD rates go up,” McDowell said. “To pretend that it doesn’t happen is quite possibly one of the most ill-informed policies we could possibly have.”
Particularly in the case of chlamydia, the county has seen a steady incline since 2012, according to data from SLO Health Counts, a database run by SLOCHD.
Chlamydia Cases in San Luis Obispo
“Unfortunately we’re seeing the rates of chlamydia going up, and at the same time more people are freely admitting they aren’t using condoms,” Health Center Head Physician Aaron Baker said.
Chlamydia is dangerous for women in particular as they can be asymptomatic and not know they contracted and are transmitting the disease for an extensive amount of time. Left untreated, chlamydia can cause damage to female sex organs, and in some cases, loss of fertility. According to McDowell, chlamydia is the most commonly seen STD in the county, and even if someone is on an oral contraceptive or has an intrauterine device, the possibility of contracting an STD still very much exists.
“A lot of people feel like an STD is not a big deal, because you can get treatment and take a pill or what have you, but if you don’t find it and don’t treat it, it can lead to serious implications down the road,” McDowell said.
For the Health Center and the SLOCHD, the main plan for prevention is education.
“It is a big problem,” Baker said. “And we can help with education, outreach, testing, treatment … but we’re only reaching the people that have concerns about it. What about the folks without the same educational opportunities?”
Unlike most counties, SLOCHD follows up with every single case of gonorrhea in order to stop transmission at each source.
“We’re one of the few counties in California who really pursue[s] gonorrhea cases, so if you get a case of gonorrhea, you can expect to get a call from our STD investigator who is going to ask, ‘who were your partners?’ So either you reach out to them, or they will and try to get them in to make sure that they are treated,” McDowell said.
There are many options for getting tested as well as for lowering one’s chances of contracting an STD. Pulse and the Health Center on campus hand out free condoms and STD tests are offered at the Health Center for chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV. Health Center hours are 8 a.m.-4:30p.m. during the week, and it is closed Saturday and Sunday.
The Center for Health and Prevention is a state-funded facility where anyone can go for free birth control, STI/STD testing, condoms and many other services. They are located at 705 Grand Ave. and are open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.