As the Virginia Department of Health looks at new information about sexually transmitted diseases, the Historic Triangle’s STD rates differ from state-wide averages.
“In terms of Williamsburg and York County, we’ve seen in 2017 when compared to 2016 an increase in chlamydia,” said Oana Vasiliu, epidemiology and surveillance manager for the Virginia Department of Health. “Gonorrhea cases in York went up but went down in Williamsburg. In both, though, there are less cases of syphilis.”
For syphilis, this is significant as it differs from the pattern seen across not only in the Peninsula, but the entire state.
According to information from VDH, Virginia’s rates of syphilis diagnoses increased from 2014 to 2015 by 57.1 percent and then from 2015 to 2016 by 13.2 percent.
“Increase depends on a multitude of factors regionally as well as the types of programs in place to diagnose these cases,” Vasiliu said.
Specifically for chlamydia and gonorrhea, after a certain point the disease might not exhibit any symptoms, so it is up to the care provider to encourage testing.
Vasiliu said in counties where there are fewer cases of those diseases, care providers might go years without seeing a case, so VDH has been trying to spread important information about diagnosing those cases.
The same goes for those who have higher risks of human immunodeficiency virus, said Anne Rhodes, deputy director in the division of disease prevention.
In the Historic Triangle, Rhodes said there has been a downward trend in newly diagnosed cases. This is similar to the national trend, she said, which could be a result of new information and advocacy.
In York County, there were 12 newly diagnosed cases in 2015, but that number decreased to eight in 2017, according to data from VDH. For James City County, there were seven cases in 2016 and then only four cases in 2018.
In Williamsburg in 2014, there was only one case of newly diagnosed HIV, but that number increased to 3 new cases in 2017.
“In cases like Williamsburg where there are such a low number, we really don’t compare trends,” Vasiliu said. “Because one case could make the rates seem doubled.”
One of the actions VDH has taken to lower numbers across the region is the spreading of awareness and medications in prevention methods before HIV can even be contracted. Rhodes said that is mainly done from offering Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP, pills.
The pills are given to those who don’t have HIV but could be at a higher risk for the disease such as those who share needles or those who might be having unprotected sex.
There are certain health facilities that distribute the drug, and generally those are in areas that might have a greater advantage at sustaining the program.
In Hampton Roads, the facilities are in Hampton and Newport News. Hampton, Rhodes said, has a larger number of clients, with the last report showing 70.
“A number of factors go into these rates in an area,” Rhodes said. “Where things like poverty are linked to HIV, there can be a stigma in certain communities. We see it in Hispanic and black community discussions and try to decrease that stigma.”
As the Historic Triangle continues to move in opposite directions of national and state trends, moving forward Vasiliu made it clear there is one key factor to prevention: Education.
“In terms of prevention, we have simple messages trying to promote one thing,” she said. “Awareness.”