Somebody contracts a new sexually transmitted disease in Kern County every hour, among the highest disease incidence rates in California – even as state figures reach record highs, according to new figures released Tuesday by the California Department of Public Health.

More than 250,000 STDs were reported in California in 2016, a 40 percent increase over five years, CDPH reported. California had more chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and congenital syphilis cases in 2016 than any other state in the country, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis.

It’s the third year in a row the state has seen increasing STD rates.

“The number of reported STDs in California is increasing at a concerning rate,” CDPH Director and State Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith said in a press release.

And Kern County ranked among the worst of California counties, with almost 9,000 reported cases. Here’s how Kern County ranked statewide:

  • There were 6,348 chlamydia cases, 42 percent higher than the state average. That’s a rate of 714 per 100,000 people. It’s second worst in the state behind San Francisco County, which had a rate of 939 per 100,000.
  • There were 1,804 gonorrhea cases, 23 percent higher than the state average. That’s a rate of almost 203 per 100,000. It’s fourth worst in the state behind San Francisco, Lake and Los Angeles counties.
  • There were 253 cases of primary and secondary syphilis, 90 percent higher than the state average. That’s a rate of 42 per 100,000 residents. It’s fourth worst in the state behind San Francisco, Fresno and San Joaquin counties.
  • Congenital syphilis, a form of the disease transferred from infected mothers to unborn babies, infected 26 babies last year. Its infection rate, fourth worst in the state, is 344 percent higher than the state average.

Kern County Director of Public Health Matt Constantine called the new statistics "shocking" and said his department would reaffirm its commitment to "attack this enemy." 

Kern County Public Health Senior Epidemiologist Kim Hernandez suggested chlamydia cases were among the highest reported because those infected are so often asymptomatic. Just 10 percent of men experience symptoms, so the majority of those infected unknowingly pass it on to sex partners, Hernandez said.

As for the overall increase in STDs, Hernandez pointed to multiple factors, including a generation of young people who are de-sensitized to the dangers of HIV compared to those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s.

“HIV has had success in de-stigmatizing so that young people today don’t fear it; they see plenty of successful people who are HIV positive in the media. I’ve heard that some are even surprised to hear that HIV is even still around,” Hernandez said. “Instead of pop culture warning people about the dangers of teen pregnancy and STDs, current pop culture glorifies sexual activity and leaves out the hardships and adverse consequences altogether.”

Changes in birth control could also be impacting rising rates, Hernandez said. Condoms, once considered the cheapest and easiest method to prevent pregnancy, are now just one in a menagerie of options that include birth control and Plan B pills.

“People may be electing those methods instead of condoms,” Hernandez said.

Bakersfield AIDS Project founder Audrey Chavez pointed to better testing as a reason for increased numbers.

“There is more testing going on. They see there’s a problem, we’re trying to catch up and I think we always need to recognize prevention is certainly worth the cost,” Chavez said.

Kern County has struggled with high STD rates for years. Acknowledging it had been lax on the issue, the Kern County Public Health Services Department launched a comprehensive awareness campaign last year called “Know Your Risk.”

It papered billboards throughout the county, recruited high-profile local politicians to become models of awareness and presented shocking STD rates before scores of local government agencies, including the Kern High School District.

Some trustees, however, were less receptive when Public Health officials asked for assistance last year. Trustee Mike Williams said that STD rates were not the responsibility of the high school district.

The district has since adopted a more comprehensive sexual education program to align with state requirements mandated through the California Healthy Youth Act.

The campaign gained traction, and the attention of Kaiser Permanente, which offered to bring a sexual educational theatre production called “What Goes Around” to Kern high schools for free. Health practitioners say the play communicates the dangers of STDs in a hip, casual way that gets to the point with teens.

KHSD agreed to offer it on its campuses, and a community presentation for parents to preview the production will be offered 10 a.m. Saturday at Bakersfield College Indoor Theatre.

Harold Pierce covers education and health for The Californian. He can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter @RoldyPierce

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