Diagnoses of sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise at the University of Kansas, according to recent numbers from KU’s Watkins Health Services.
And although any increase raises concern for university health officials, KU’s climbing rates are part of a national surge in chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis that hit a record high in 2017, said Jenny McKee, program manager at Watkins’ Health Education Resource Office.
For example, the number of gonorrhea cases diagnosed at KU jumped 39 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to the Watkins Health Services figures, marking the most dramatic jump of the four major sexually transmitted infections at KU.
And over the past several years, Douglas County as a whole has seen a similar jump in the number of gonorrhea cases, according to statistics from the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department. From 2015 to 2016, the number of cases in the county rose from 83 to 123 — a 48 percent increase. There were 121 cases reported between January and June 2017 in Douglas County, nearly as many as there were in the entire previous year.
Local health officials attributed the spike in recorded cases partly to changing sexual behaviors and partly to increases in STD testing. KU’s numbers are reflective of those trends as well, McKee said.
“I do think we are seeing more positive tests because people are more comfortable going in and getting tested, which is a good thing,” said McKee, whose job focuses on education and outreach among KU students.
Battling sexually transmitted infections on university campuses has its own unique challenges, McKee said, because students often enter college with varying knowledge of sex and how to protect themselves against STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Some may have come from school districts with comprehensive sexual education, McKee said, while others were taught only about abstinence growing up.
And, because of KU’s Division 1 status and reputation as the state’s flagship university, it tends to attract students from all over the country and world.
“If people don’t know what they’re supposed to be aware of or what the risks are when becoming sexually active, whatever ‘sexually active’ means to that person, there’s a huge likelihood that transmission of (STDs) is going to happen,” McKee said.
While college is known as a time of sexual exploration, McKee said today’s crop of college students are likely less sexually active than their parents were in their twenties. Recent studies in the academic journal Archives of Sexual Behavior have shown millennials (roughly speaking, those born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s) to be the least sexually active generation in decades, and people in the 15-to-24-year-old range, McKee said, are at a higher risk for STDs “just by virtue of their age.”
Those between 15 and 24 make up just over a quarter of the country’s sexually active population, she said, and account for half of all new STD cases annually. This age group is also likely to use popular dating apps such as Tinder and Grindr. With their “explicit purpose of finding a one-night stand,” McKee said, these apps may have also contributed to rising STD rates among college students.
But she’s also encouraged by efforts at KU to educate students and de-stigmatize sexually transmitted diseases. McKee’s Health Education Resource Office hosts “sex-positive” events at different campus locations every Friday, in addition to providing residence halls, scholarship halls and greek houses with education and access to contraceptives.
Watkins Health Services has also “bundled” testing for four major STDs — chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV — which McKee said has decreased the cost. The student health center, at 1200 Schwegler Drive, also offers walk-in testing and free HIV testing.
Ultimately, McKee said, knowledge is power.
“College is a time when folks really start exploring sexually,” she said. “And if they’re coming here with little to no information, that’s not going to help us decrease the risk of (STDs).”