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Darkfield micrograph of Treponema pallidum, the spiral-shaped bacterium that causes syphilis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention image

Reported STDs continue climb in North Dakota with sharp rise in gonorrhea

BISMARCK — The overall number of sexually transmitted diseases reported in North Dakota increased last year, according to new data from the North Dakota Department of Health, but one infection in particular stands out.

New state figures show a nearly 42% increase in gonorrhea cases between 2017 and 2018, and the increase was most drastic in adults 30 to 44 years old, where state health officials found a 66% jump.

“It’s alarming . . . we usually don't see it in that age group. Usually it's younger,” said Laura Spicer, a nurse practitioner and the executive director at Valley Health, a reproductive health clinic in Grand Forks.

It is not yet clear why that age group is seeing such a spike in North Dakota, but the state health department's STD surveillance coordinator Shari Renton said it could be because older adults aren’t asked to get screened as often as people in their 20s.

While numbers have gone down in some years, chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis infections have generally trended upward in North Dakota since 2013. Syphilis and chlamydia cases increased by around 6% and 8% respectively between 2017 and 2018.

Renton added a caveat to the data: Only confirmed infections are reportable under state law, and public health officials don’t know if more people were tested this year than last year, possibly skewing numbers.

Still, a continued increase would reflect the broader national trend toward more infections.

Most types of infections steadily increased between 2013 and 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent years have also marked the resurgence of syphilis, which only two decades ago was at historic lows.

“We are sliding backward,” the CDC's Jonathan Mermin said in a 2018 news release announcing the fourth consecutive year of climbing STD rates in the United States.

And with health agencies’ limited ability to monitor all cases and gaps in testing, it’s still unclear exactly how severe the problem is.

“We really don’t know. A lot of STDs are asymptomatic,” Renton said, explaining that the true number of infections can be hard to measure because many don’t get tested if they aren’t experiencing symptoms.

But even if symptoms don't present themselves right away, untreated infections can lead to severe lifelong health complications — including chronic pain and reproductive problems.

The state health department points out a number of risk factors, including anonymous sex, multiple sexual partners, engaging in unprotected sex and being under the influence of drugs or alcohol while having sex.

The North Dakota Department of Health offers a confidential HIV, STD and viral hepatitis risk assessment survey on its website.

Reporter Alex Derosier contributed to this report.