The nationwide rate of sexually transmitted diseases has reached epidemic levels over the last few years, with a reported 2 million cases in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. California ranked among the highest rates of primary, secondary and congenital syphilis contraction per population.
In 2017, a total of 7,112 tests for syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and HIV were conducted at the student health center. The tests found that eight Cal State Fullerton students tested positive for syphilis, 26 for gonorrhea and 142 for chlamydia, according to statistics provided by Student Wellness.
No information was available on how many students, if any, tested positive for HIV.
In Orange County, the number of cases involving syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia has dramatically increased since 2011, particularly for people between the ages of 20 and 24, according to the California Department of Public Health.
“One of the reasons (for the rise) might be the lack of major concern about exposure to STDs. It’s almost a part of culture now,” said Dr. Richard Boucher, interim director of Health Services and chief staff physician of Student Wellness at CSUF.
Currently, Student Wellness provides STD testing for a fee ranging from $3 for a syphilis test to $43 for a chlamydia test for students who do not qualify for Family PACT, a state-funded program.
The center primarily tests patients based on their individual risk factors like sexual history. Some STD symptoms can go unnoticed by patients, which is why Kerri Boyd Crooks, senior coordinator of Student Wellness subdivision Titan Well, encourages students to get tested regularly.
“If you don’t get tested, you don’t know your status. A lot of STIs are asymptomatic so you can’t assume you don’t just because you don’t have any symptoms,” Boyd Crooks said.
An STI, or sexually transmitted infection, is an infection spread through sexual contact that can sometimes lead to a sexually transmitted disease, according to the American Sexual Health Association.
In Orange County between 2013 and 2017, early stages of syphilis increased 99 percent, chlamydia went up 65 percent and gonorrhea rose 129 percent, said Christopher Ried, medical director of HIV/STD services for Orange County Health Care Agency.
Ried said a large portion of the increase in STIs between 2012 and 2016 came from 18 to 24 year olds, and a large part of the syphilis and gonorrhea increase stems from men who have sex with other men. He attributes the rise in STDs to several factors including lack of STD clinic funding, insufficient treatments for asymptomatic STDs and less condom usage.
“There’s not that many STD clinics left in California. There’s very few. We are one of the only STD clinics in Orange County,” Ried said. “To have a clinic that is dedicated solely to STDs is very unusual.”
Young adults between the ages of 15 and 25 account for about half of reported STI annual cases, according to a 2016 survey from the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Esteban Montes, a senior international business student at CSUF and representative for myLAB Box, an at-home STD screening kit, said he believes college students are more at risk of STDs because of their tendency to initiate casual sexual encounters.
“If you look at colleges and universities, (students) are experimenting with sexual activity with their partners. A lot of times having different relationships, and they’re not really long term,” Montes said.
Concerns over confidentiality may be one reason as to why young adults feel discouraged to seek out professional help. Montes said that while available resources on campus are helpful to students, not everyone feels comfortable going into the wellness center.
Montes said alternative STD testing methods like take-home swabbing kits would be more effective because they give people more control over the process while still ensuring privacy.
According to the data from Student Wellness, most of the students who are receiving STD tests at CSUF are female. Men account for fewer than half the number of female tests.
Boucher attributes this to the fact that many STD tests administered in Student Wellness are done complimentary with birth control visits and reproductive health checkups. He recommends annual STD testing for all sexually active students and encourages them to stay informed about sexual health.
“There are some that are curable, but there are some that are treatable and not curable, therefore you have it for the rest of your life. So, I think it’s education and being smart (about sexual choices),” Boucher said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual STD screenings for sexually active women under 25, men who have sex with men and people who share needles.
Condoms, aside from abstinence, are the only way to prevent STDs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At CSUF, free condoms are provided at Student Wellness if students submit a request form and show providers a student ID.
“Condoms still work,” Ried said. “STD rates went really, really low (in the ‘80s) when people realized they needed to be protected if they didn’t want to get a fatal disease. And I actually don’t hear a lot of condom use coming from patients who come to our clinic.”