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Officials, churches join fight against sexual diseases

Unusual partnership targets chlamydia and gonorrhea in Los Angeles County, which has one of the highest rates in the nation, especially in Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas' district.

September 20, 2011|By Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times
  • A home-testing kit for sexually transmitted diseases is seen at a news conference Monday to announce a Los Angeles County program to provide young women in South Los Angeles with these kits. Los Angeles County has the highest number of chlamydia cases and the second-highest number of gonorrhea cases in the country.
A home-testing kit for sexually transmitted diseases is seen at a news conference… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

Moving to combat rising rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia among young black women in South Los Angeles, county officials launched a new education and testing campaign Monday with some unlikely partners: churches.

Pastors and "first ladies" from churches throughout the region are joining an effort to raise awareness of the sexually transmitted diseases and publicize a home testing program.

"Nobody wants to talk about it," said Debra Williams, whose husband is the pastor at McCoy Memorial Baptist Church. "We need to change that."

The campaign, led by Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Department of Public Health Director Dr. Jonathan Fielding, will increase access to free tests and information through three touch-screen computer kiosks and a mobile health van. Health officials also plan to expand patient follow-up at clinics and prevention education at schools.

Officials announced details of the program to school officials, church leaders, public health workers and reporters Monday at the new King Center for Public Health in Willowbrook.

Los Angeles County ranks first in the nation for the numbers of chlamydia cases and second for gonorrhea cases, according to a 2009 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year, more than 45,400 chlamydia cases and 10,400 gonorrhea cases were reported in Los Angeles County, according to the county Department of Public Health.

The number of residents with both diseases is disproportionately higher in the 2nd Supervisorial District, which includes South Los Angeles and two dozen other communities, according to the county Department of Public Health. The rates are also much higher for black females ages 15 to 24 than any other population, according to the department.

The diseases, which can cause infertility and dangerous pregnancy complications, are often detected late because many of those affected don't have recognizable symptoms. The CDC recommends yearly screening for sexually active women ages 25 and younger.

Women will be able to order home testing kits online or through kiosks to be placed initially in pharmacies in the 2nd Supervisorial District and added later at community centers and schools. Peer counselors and outreach workers also will have hand-held tablets and be able to register women for the tests and distribute them on the spot. The test takes less than a minute and women can get their results by logging onto the website or calling a toll-free number.

The expanded outreach at schools, clinics and churches is expected to have a wide impact, said Dr. Peter Kerndt, who directs the county's sexually transmitted disease program. "This is not only STD prevention," he said. "It's pregnancy prevention. It's HIV prevention."

Ridley-Thomas said local data on the diseases is alarming and the involvement of the churches is "unprecedented."

"This is probably the first time you have pastors and first ladies coming forward to address an issue that heretofore has been considered taboo," he said.

anna.gorman@latimes.com

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