By Taylor Koopman
A Grand Rapids native and recent graduate of Western Michigan University was in a car accident in early July.
Worried about a concussion, she went to a doctor to be examined. During the visit she was asked if she wanted any routine STI testing. She agreed to the testing, not thinking much of it.
A few days later, the woman received a phone call. The nurse informed her she didn’t have a concussion, but she did in fact have chlamydia.
“I didn’t have any symptoms at all,” she said. “I started crying [when I found out]. I knew about the high STI rates in Kalamazoo because my friend had gotten one from someone she met and hooked up with at the bar. I guess I didn’t take it seriously because I’ve never had a one-night stand.”
The 23-year-old, who asked not to be named because her parents don’t know she is sexually active, is just one of the hundreds of documented cases of STIs in Kalamazoo county this year.
With more than two million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis reported in the United States in 2016, STDs are at a record high and are outpacing our ability to respond, according to a recent news release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Kalamazoo county alone, 864 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people were reported in 2016. That’s almost double the state average of 496 cases per 100,000 people, according to the Kalamazoo County Health Statistics Data Brief 2017. Not only have STI rates been steadily climbing since 2012, an outbreak level for gonorrhea was reached in Kalamazoo County in January, as reported by the Kalamazoo Health and Community Services Department.
“I think the scary part is I might not be able to have kids now,” the 23-year-old said. “And I guess I never thought about that. I never knew that was a possibility.”
Unfortunately, infertility is a possibility for women with chlamydia who go untreated, and since chlamydia often doesn’t come with symptoms, this can easily become a problem for affected women.
One 21-year-old recent WMU graduate, who asked not to be named because her parents do not know she is sexually active, was shocked to learn of her chlamydia diagnosis in January.
“I was surprised because I had no symptoms,” the Royal Oak native said. “It was an accidental finding because I was due for a pap [smear].”
The WMU graduate said she was, “going through a bit of a hookup phase,” and was going out often and going home with someone new almost every weekend.
“Some I was safe with, others I was not,” she said.
Jennifer Combes, the office coordinator for Student Health and Counseling Centers at Kalamazoo College, said the college social scene fosters the problem.
“Being a smart person, or a hard-working person, or a clean person, it does not have anything to do with STI status,” Combes said. “The hookup culture is pretty prevalent on campus and can often lead to sexual behavior with somebody you don’t know, or don’t know their testing status.”
Combes wants to erase the stigma surrounding STIs to get people talking about their sexual health, and to encourage more STI testing.
“There’s a lot of ‘it can’t happen to me, it wouldn’t happen to me’ type of mentality and it can happen to anyone,” said Combes. “It isn’t about your moral character or your values. You just need to be aware of it and be proactive in taking care of your own health.”
Untreated chlamydia in females is of particular concern, said William Nettleton, the medical director of Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services. “You can develop something called pelvic inflammatory disease, which can lead to scarring within the reproductive organs.”
Scarring in female reproductive organs can lead to long-term pelvic pain, difficulty getting pregnant, infertility, or ectopic pregnancy, which is a pregnancy outside of the uterus. This STI is more prevalent for women in Kalamazoo, particularly for African-American women from age 15 to 24, said Nettleton.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting tested for STIs is one of the most important things you can do to protect your health, and recommends all sexually active women younger than 25 years old get screened once a year for chlamydia and gonorrhea. Students can learn more about sexual health and get tested by visiting WMU’s Sindecuse Health Center or Kalamazoo College’s Student Health Center.