Sexually Transmitted Diseases Are On The Rise Across The Military

Health & Fitness
102d Medical Group personnel doing lab work during the November 2017 Unit Training Assembly at Otis Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts.
DoD photo

Sexually transmitted disease cases are rising in the military in line with a record number of reported cases across the civilian population in the U.S.


“Not long ago, gonorrhea rates were at historic lows, syphilis was close to elimination, and better chlamydia diagnostic tests and more screening were available,” Dr. Gail Bolan, the Centers for Disease Control’s director of STD prevention, wrote in a recent agency report. “That progress has since unraveled.”

The CDC reported its highest-ever number of STD cases this year after increases over a three-year period. Similar rising trends are being seen in the military.

Syphilis diagnoses doubled during the past decade, according to the military’s Medical Surveillance Monthly Report released in September. Chlamydia and gonorrhea cases, stable or declining since a spike in 2008, also were beginning to rise.

Gonorrhea cases have doubled in less than a year at Vicenza, said Lt. Col. Orlando Ruiz Sosa, chief of preventive medicine at the Army’s base health center. Chlamydia cases have increased by more than a third, Ruiz Sosa added.

Vicenza health officials have responded by starting a program that they hope will encourage more people to get tested and treated.

Troops and others with military health benefits may “self-refer” themselves for testing by going to the health center lab — without an appointment, doctor’s referral, sergeant’s sick call approval or commander involvement.

Test results are sent to a confidential physician, if desired. Positive results are relayed in a phone call, followed by treatment and counseling.

Contact information for recent sexual partners is sought so that they also can be tested and, if necessary, treated — but they aren’t told who mentioned them.

The program “is just one more thing to help people access care, with the idea that earlier diagnosis will prevent spread,” said health center spokeswoman Tamara Passut.

Undetected STDs can lead to serious health consequences, yet they frequently show no symptoms. That’s especially true for women, whose physiology makes them more likely to contract chlamydia and gonorrhea from a male partner than the reverse, and more likely to suffer complications.

“Chlamydia — for men it’s an inconvenience. For women, it’s secondary infertility,” said Lt. Col. Eric Garges, director of sexually transmitted infection research at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md.

Experts recommend that all sexually active women younger than 25 be tested annually for chlamydia. People also should be tested if they’ve had sex with a new partner or multiple partners, or their partners did.

The military has significantly higher STD rates than civilian populations, despite free health care, free condoms and chlamydia screenings, Garges said. Even compared with similar civilian demographics, military rates are significantly higher — three to six times higher, according to one study.

“The question is why is the rate higher once they put on the uniform?” Garges said.

Part of the reason is explained by demographics, experts say. Troops are young, as are the majority of those at risk for STDs.

Where troops come from also plays a role: 44 percent of troops enlist from the southern U.S., which has the highest rates in the nation for gonorrhea and chlamydia.

“They bring their STDs with them,” Garges said.

Troops also can access expanding sexual networks, with partners at their duty stations, in the local civilian community, on deployment and when they go home on leave.

“We think when people put on the uniform, they’re exposed to higher-risk networks,” Garges said. “Your partners have other partners. It allows for diseases to move through populations.”

Surveys have indicated high alcohol use in the military, which is associated with riskier sex and less condom use. One study of Navy women suggested many believed they’d be viewed as sexually promiscuous if they had condoms or insisted on their use.

Ruiz Sosa said many people he’s counseled after they’d been diagnosed expressed embarrassment or shame. “I’ve seen males and females crying,” Ruiz Sosa said. “I try to comfort them. I say it could happen to anyone.”

He also tells them that avoiding STDs requires abstinence or monogamy, and that consistent condom use is highly effective in reducing the risk for sexually active people. “I say, ‘Be careful. Be responsible,’?” he said.

But Garges said the military needed a new overall approach to dealing with STDs. Advising troops merely to be careful and to use condoms obviously has been ineffective, he said.

“I’ve been working on this for years,” Garges said. “We have the exact same problem we had 50 years ago. We have this high burden of disease and we’ve just sort of accepted it.”

———

©2017 the Stars and Stripes. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia

A former sailor who was busted buying firearms with his military discount and then reselling some of them to criminals is proving to be a wealth of information for federal investigators.

Julio Pino used his iPhone to record most, if not all, of his sales, court documents said. He even went so far as to review the buyers' driver's license on camera.

It is unclear how many of Pino's customer's now face criminal charges of their own. Federal indictments generally don't provide that level of detail and Assistant U.S. Attorney William B. Jackson declined to comment.

Read More Show Less
Photo illustration by Paul Szoldra/Task & Purpose

It all began with a medical check.

Carson Thomas, a healthy and fit 20-year-old infantryman who had joined the Army after a brief stint in college, figured he should tell the medics about the pain in his groin he had been feeling. It was Feb. 12, 2012, and the senior medic looked him over and decided to send him to sick call at the base hospital.

It seemed almost routine, something the Army doctors would be able to diagnose and fix so he could get back to being a grunt.

Now looking back on what happened some seven years later, it was anything but routine.

Read More Show Less
U.S. Army Cpt. Katrina Hopkins and Chief Warrant Officer 2 James Rogers, assigned to Task Force Warhorse, pilot a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during a medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) operation at Camp Taji, Iraq, Dec. 18, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Javion Siders)

U.S. forces must now ask the Iraqi military for permission to fly in Iraqi airspace before coming to the aid of U.S. troops under fire, a top military spokesman said.

However, the mandatory approval process is not expected to slow down the time it takes the U.S. military to launch close air support and casualty evacuation missions for troops in the middle of a fight, said Army Col. James Rawlinson, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.

Read More Show Less
Army Spc. Clayton James Horne

Army Spc. Clayton James Horne died in Saudi Arabia on Aug. 17, making him the eighth non-combat fatality for Operation Inherent Resolve so far this year, defense officials have announced.

Horne, 23, was assigned to the 351st Military Police Company, 160th Military Police Battalion, an Army Reserve unit based in Ocala, Florida, a Pentagon news release says.

Read More Show Less
Joshua Yabut/Twitter

The soldier who was arrested for taking an armored personnel carrier on a slow-speed police chase through Virginia has been found not guilty by reason of insanity on two charges, according to The Richmond-Times Dispatch.

Joshua Phillip Yabut, 30, entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle — in this case, a 12-ton APC taken from Fort Pickett in June 2018 — and violating the terms of his bond, which stemmed from a trip to Iraq he took in March 2019 (which was not a military deployment).

Read More Show Less