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County plans to fight STDs

June 26, 2007|Mary Engel | Times Staff Writer

To combat rising rates of syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea, Los Angeles County officials will launch a public health campaign today that uses drink coasters, murals, sidewalk chalk art and other unconventional approaches to advertise the need to get tested.

The bilingual campaign is aimed at gay and bisexual men, African American women and Latinas, the groups most affected by the increase in sexually transmitted diseases, said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the county Department of Public Health.

Syphilis in gay and bisexual men in Los Angeles County increased by 365% between 2001 and 2005, officials said.

In 2005, gay and bisexual men made up more than two-thirds of the county's roughly 1,200 syphilis cases.

Also in Los Angeles County, 67% of the 30,000 women with chlamydia and 65% of the 5,000 women reported to have gonorrhea were African American or Latinas, officials said.

The county will spend $1.3 million on the campaign, which is intended to reach "people who are not going to be watching mainstream television or reading the newspapers," Fielding said.

About half the budget will be used for advertising, including some traditional billboards and bus ads. The rest will be used for additional staff to handle the expected increase in testing and to track down sexual partners, as required by law, for treating sexually transmitted diseases.

The county Board of Supervisors ordered a new campaign last year upon hearing that syphilis cases rose sharply in 2005 after leveling off in the previous two years. It replaces a campaign called "Stop the Sores," which ran sporadically between 2002 and 2005 and featured a cartoon character syphilis sore named Phil.

Some local healthcare advocates criticized the Phil campaign as being less effective than one in San Francisco featuring a cartoon penis. But Fielding defended the campaign, saying that it might be responsible for the increase in the number of reported syphilis cases because it led to more people being tested.

"But we still haven't made the kind of progress that we absolutely need to make," Fielding added.

Craig E. Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, praised the new campaign as being "sexier" and more likely to capture people's attention than the previous effort.

A typical poster in the new campaign features a man with a towel around his waist standing before a shower and the slogan, "Check Yourself: Don't Assume You're Coming Off Clean."

Thompson warned, however, that health promotions need to be "intensive, pervasive and last a long time."

"We go from campaign to campaign," he said. "Maybe we get people's attention for a while, then we don't have anything out there."

Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, also praised the new campaign as being better than the old one but faulted the county for not acting earlier to stop the rise in syphilis.

"We have to set up a system in which every sexually active person gets screened at least every six months, the same as having our teeth cleaned," he said.

The posters for chlamydia feature young black women and Latinas and the message: "I Know that hooking up can have a downside. That over 30,000 women in L.A. get chlamydia every year. That chlamydia is curable."

Chlamydia, the most commonly reported sexually transmitted infection in the country, is known as a silent disease because the bacteria often cause no immediate symptoms but can lead to long-term problems such as chronic pelvic pain and infertility.

Men can transmit the bacteria but seldom suffer complications.

Gonorrhea in women can also have mild or no symptoms but cause similar long-term problems.

Syphilis first appears as sores on the genitals but can go into a latent stage with no symptoms. It is treated with antibiotics if it is detected early but can lead to heart or brain infections if it is untreated.

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