STDs hit African-Americans at higher rate

Health officials look for a new strategy to fight disparity

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The majority of Allegheny County cases of sexually transmitted disease occurs in African-Americans, prompting county health officials to consider new strategies to tackle the problem.

In 2008, 49 of 89 cases of syphilis in Allegheny County, or more than 60 percent of all cases, involved African-Americans, who make up 13.5 percent of the county population.

Meanwhile, about 1,585 of 2,164 cases of gonorrhea last year (or 73.3 percent of the county total) and 3,070 of 5,206 cases of chlamydia (about 60 percent of the total) also involved African-Americans.

Regarding HIV/AIDS, 52 of 92 cases countywide in 2008, or 56 percent of the total, involved African-American citizens.

"There are disparities but not to the magnitude of cities in other parts of the country, including the Eastern seaboard," said Dr. Bruce Dixon, Allegheny County Health Department director. "We have an opportunity in Allegheny County to do something about it."

The department, which gathered the county data, held an STD Diversity Conference yesterday at the Wyndham Garden Hotel in Oakland to discuss the numbers, then had health officials break into groups to develop strategies to reduce the STD rate in the African-American community.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, already working to address the national problem of disproportionately high numbers of STD cases among African-Americans, describes the task as "a daunting undertaking."

"STD disparities reflect socioeconomic disparities, which in turn reflect deep-rooted racial inequalities that continue to exist and are metastasized throughout American society," states a CDC overview on STD prevention.

Last year, the CDC said, nearly half of all young African-American teenage females, aged 14 to 19, were infected with an STD, compared with 20 percent of young white females.

STD totals statewide, based on 2007 numbers, also show racial disparity in the number of African-Americans with infections. About 52 percent of all chlamydia cases, 65 percent of all gonorrhea cases and 51 percent of all syphilis cases in the state involve African-Americans, who make up 10 percent of the state population.

The CDC, the state Department of Health and the local health department generally agree that the problem can be addressed with the right mix of screening and education, especially in local high schools, with outreach programs for at-risk adult populations.

But Walter H. Smith, executive director of Family Resources of Allegheny County, said high-risk minority populations remain isolated and largely ignored by the health system.

That makes it necessary to tap the social network in these communities to connect with people whose poverty, isolation and fear prevents them from seeking help.

"This is really complex and really difficult and not as simple as it might seem to design a program to reach persons of highest risk," Dr. Smith said.

To reduce STDs, local health officials also must address other problems affecting the minority population to break down social barriers and earn its trust.

"The people at highest risk are the most socially and emotionally isolated, and they are suspicious," Dr. Smith said. "There is an increased rate of STD in their community? Surprise! Surprise! We're not reaching them."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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