WALLA WALLA — The number of gonorrhea cases is rising rapidly in Washington state, with Walla Walla County reporting 23 incidents this year, up nearly fivefold over the four cases reported last year, health officials said Thursday.
Statewide the number of gonorrhea cases rose from 2,350 in 2012 to 3,137 this year, a 34 percent increase, noted the state Department of Health in a news release.
In Walla Walla County, the age group most effected locally is 25-29 years old, with seven of the 23 cases. The sexually transmitted disease afflicted 18 women and five men.
Statewide, the 20-24 age group was the most affected, with 877 reported cases. But unlike in Walla Walla County, men suffered more cases than women, 1,933 compared to 1,207.
Rates have been going up steadily since 2010 and health experts haven’t been able to attribute a specific cause to the uptick. The jump has occurred among men and women in most age groups, but young adults remain the most affected, said Marqise Allen, a Department of Health spokesman.
Rural and urban counties in Washington have reported a climb in cases, with Spokane, Yakima, Thurston, Kitsap and Benton counties at outbreak levels.
Gonorrhea is the second most common sexually transmitted disease in Washington after chlamydia. It’s spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner and can present few or no symptoms, particularly among women.
Men are more likely to recognize the problem and be treated, said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department. “There is tremendous inflammation in the urethra and it just burns. There’s usually a discharge. It’s just nasty.”
Because women are less likely to know they have contracted the disease, untreated cases can infect the uterus and cause significant damage in the reproductive system, he added.
In Walla Walla County, it’s difficult to pinpoint a starting point or pattern in the escalation of gonorrhea. However, there is one group of five intravenous drug users whose members are having random and unprotected sex with multiple partners, Crowder said. Outside of that circle, however, other cases do not seem to be related.
In recent years, gonorrhea bacteria has become adept at surviving treatment, which is administered in a cocktail of oral and injectable antibiotics.
The climbing numbers of cases and the increasing difficulty in killing the disease does not bode well.
“Eventually we’re going to see cases of syphilis, and then cases of HIV,” Crowder said. “We don’t tend to think of syphilis any longer. We’re going to find it, and AIDS coming along at higher rates. And that’s very concerning.”
Washington rates are still well below the national average, Allen said.
Health officials urge anyone who is experiencing symptoms, or has a partner that has been diagnosed, to be tested. Routine screenings are recommended for sexually active people. Prevention methods include consistent and correct use of condoms, partner treatment, mutual monogamy and abstinence.
For more information call Walla Walla County Health Department at 524-2650.