New Mexico is once again near the top of a list that doesn’t reflect well on the state.
Based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state ranks second in the nation for its rate of syphilis. In 2019, it had 511 cases, or a rate of 24.4 cases per 100,000 residents.
The state also ranks 10th for chlamydia — with more than 14,000 cases in 2019 — and 11th for gonorrhea — with nearly 5,000 cases.
Those are statistics Planned Parenthood officials and state legislators find alarming.
“All of those rankings are distressing, that we rate so high in gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia,” Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said at a legislative hearing in August, when Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains presented the troubling data.
Adrienne Mansanares, chief experience officer for the regional branch of Planned Parenthood, said in an interview many people consider a sexually transmitted infection shameful, and the stigma could be preventing them from getting tested.
Compounding the problem, many people with such infections don’t experience symptoms.
“Most people don’t know they have an STI,” Mansanares said. “And we have a lot of people who come into health centers who believe they are in a monogamous relationship who test positive for an STI, and that is devastating. Not only are you told you have an STI — yes, we can treat it — but that means their partner has not been in the monogamous relationship they thought they were in.”
Planned Parenthood representatives told lawmakers on the Health and Human Services Committee in August the state could help increase testing and treatment for sexually transmitted illnesses by offsetting health insurance copays and making them more affordable.
“There are individuals who do not want to get tested because that is another cost added to their burden,” said Josh Garcia, manager of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain’s MPower program, which provides HIV prevention and education to LGBTQ youth.
He said the state also could provide money for mail-in STI test kits. Postage costs $15 — a heavy lift for low-income residents.
A public awareness campaign also could make a difference, Kayla Herring, public affairs manager for the regional Planned Parenthood, told lawmakers. “We feel very strongly that a public awareness prevention campaign would work to reduce and prevent STIs,” she said.
Ortiz y Pinto said that makes sense. “Let’s spend some money on a public education campaign utilizing all the social media and television we can,” he said at the hearing.
In an interview later, Ortiz y Pino said such campaigns are “being given short shrift these days.”
A public education effort focusing on birth control and sexually transmitted diseases needs extra support, he added. “Unless people use that condom, unless they are trained to use them, if we’re not encouraging people to use them and if we’re not stressing all the consequences about not using them, then we’re not doing enough.”
Garcia said the coronavirus pandemic might have played a role in the increasing number of sexually transmitted diseases. People feeling lonely amid stay-at-home orders might have engaged in “risky behavior, maybe meeting individuals on dating apps, something they may not have normally done,” he said.
Mansanares said her agency also is concerned STIs could spike in the post-pandemic world because so many people were not getting regular medical care.
CDC data from 2019 shows young people ages 15 to 24 accounted for almost half of the new sexually transmitted infections that year.
Anita Hett, the head nurse for Santa Fe Public Schools, said students who go to school nurses with concerns about sexually transmitted infections are referred to the Teen Health Centers at Santa Fe High School and Capital High School, which are run by Presbyterian Medical Services and serve students at both public and private schools in the city.
Robert Benon, the centers’ medical director, said his staff is not seeing a rise in syphilis among teens, but there is often an “ebb and flow more common with rates of chlamydia and herpes.”
New Mexico is not alone in rising rates of sexually transmitted infections. In 2019, there were more than 2.5 million cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia nationwide, making that the sixth year in a row of record-breaking numbers.
Mansanares said one way to combat the spread of infections is to normalize testing at annual medical checkups.
“Get tested every year regardless of your sexual behavior,” she said. “It’s easy to do.”