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St. Louis city and county join efforts to combat high STD rates

The chlamydia bacteria, stained and viewed at 500 times.
National Cancer Institute | Dr. Lance Liotta Laboratory
Human pap smear showing the bacterium, Chlamydia trachomatis

When Faisal Khan took the job of St. Louis County's director of health earlier this year, one of his first calls was to Melba Moore, St. Louis' new health director. He asked for he help to tackle regional problems like sexually transmitted diseases.

“She said yes; let’s do this,” Khan said. "Let’s start looking at issues such as STDs, violence prevention, obesity and poverty alleviation."

The city of St. Louis frequently finds itself among the top cities in the country for rates of sexually transmitted diseases. This year, the city ranked first in the country for rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea, according to new numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But if the St. Louis metro area is measured as a whole, per capita STD rankings are no longer in the top 10 nationwide.  

By pooling resources for outreach, coordinating prevention efforts and applying for grants together, Khan said he and Moore believe they’ll reach more people.

Under the new effort, which began over the summer, city and county health department officials meet regularly to discuss prevention. The committee is called STIRR: Sexually Transmitted Infection Regional Response Coalition. Though it doesn’t come with new funding, Khan said the agencies will able to divert personnel and work with local nonprofits more efficiently.

“It’s basically like a think tank,” said Franda Thomas, a program coordinator who works for the city’s Department of Health. They will be looking at “barriers to getting in to getting an appointment, things we need to be talking about with our patients when they get there… how, regionally, we should formulate our response to it, and what we can do to support each other’s efforts.”

One major issue the group will address from a regional perspective is public awareness, Thomas said.

“When we are on the ground working with people, we’re answering questions like ‘oh, I thought you had to have insurance to go there,’” Thomas said. “A lot of times people aren’t aware of where they can go to get treated or that there are options that are low cost or no cost.”

A second priority, said Khan, is prevention.

“We’ve done a reasonable job in terms of providing screening and treatment. But preventing people from getting to the point where they need to be screened and treated has been a challenge,” Khan said.

Khan pointed to existing efforts like the Fading Out HIV Program and the Supporting Positive Opportunities for Teens clinic. It would be a major accomplishment if funding and personnel could be found to put those programs in other parts of the city, he said.

“Our chances of competing for an increasingly amount of money increase when we join forces and apply for things together rather than approaching them separately,” Khan said.

This year, chlamydia and gonorrhea rates in St. Louis did click downward — about 3 and 12 percent, respectively. Syphllis, however, increased by about 37 percent.  

Why has it taken so long for the city and county to work together in this way? Khan said he couldn’t think of a good reason.

“Jurisdictional boundaries or geographic boundaries mean nothing in the context of social determinants of disease or sexually transmitted diseases,” Khan said.

After all, city-county boundaries don’t mean much when it comes to love, either.   

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB