Los Angeles County teenagers were recently exposed to an all-day event, called Spring Into Love, that was intended to get high school-age students more comfortable talking about sex. Organizers hoped that an open dialogue would make them more likely to seek out condoms and STD testing, and eventually reduce the spread of disease and unintended pregnancy.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Gunzenhauser, L.A. County’s interim health officer, the traditional ways of preventing disease — patients seeing a doctor regularly to get screened and treated — have not been working. Officials are trying to think outside the box as they struggle to curb rising STD rates and they recently created a Center for Health Equity to evaluate the way certain public health issues are intertwined with social factors such as income and education, as well as racial discrimination.

High STD rates are at the top of the center’s list of priorities. In just the past five years, the number of gonorrhea cases in Los Angeles County doubled, with minorities suffering more than most.

Spring Into Love, which began five years ago, is the brainchild of a coalition of L.A. County health advocates trying to bring down STD rates. This year’s event, held in late March, included workshops on healthy relationships and body image, as well as free STD testing. Teens at Spring Into Love sought practical information they hadn’t learned in health class, like how sexually transmitted diseases are contracted.

In Los Angeles, half of chlamydia cases and a third of gonorrhea cases diagnosed each year are among people between the ages of 15 and 24. Gonorrhea cases have soared in the county since 2012 growing from 12,000 cases to over 25,000 in 2017.  Similarly, according to the California Department of Public Health, Chlamydia cases per 100,000 people in the county have grown from around 440 cases in 2012 to nearly 550 cases in 2017, mirroring a similar trend statewide.

Researchers increasingly view public health problems as shaped by the environments in which people live. Neighborhoods where people of color reside, for example, are more likely to be pollution-ridden and have fewer parks and doctors — factors that directly affect people’s health.

Nationwide, STD rates have been climbing for the past five years. More people were diagnosed with syphilis, chlamydia or gonorrhea in 2016 than ever before.

Some blame underfunding of STD prevention programs, as well as falling condom usage. There’s also speculation that people are having sex with more partners because of hookup apps.

But the picture is more complicated when it comes to the high STD rates among minorities. Gay and bisexual men make up the vast majority of new syphilis cases. In L.A. County, syphilis rates among African American women are six times higher than white women and three times higher than Latina women.

Studies have found, for example, that people with HIV who had low levels of literacy were less likely to follow their treatment, and that poorer Americans were more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior, increasing their risk of STDs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a white paper in 2010 saying the country could not close disparities in STD rates without addressing “the interpersonal, network, community, and societal influences of disease transmission and health.”

But that’s a tall order given how entrenched many social problems are.

Poverty or a lack of opportunity may be forcing women to exchange sex for resources, leading to the spread of STDs. There also tends to be a mistrust of the medical system among African Americans, making them reluctant to seek care. Certain neighborhoods may be excluded from access to healthcare because of geography or finances, she said.

County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents INGLEWOOD and South Los Angeles, convened several community groups in 2012 to try to bring down STD rates through collaboration.

There is little disagreement that creating an environment where young people are comfortable seeking-out information regarding STD’s and where the information is readily available and accessible to them, the incidence of STD’s and unwanted pregnancies are likely to diminish.

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