As a state, we also place in the top tier of national rankings for sexually transmitted infections, particularly in transmissions of chlamydia and gonorrhea. Alaska also ranks highly in transmissions of syphilis, another common STI. That’s not likely to change anytime soon – a recent outbreak in gonorrhea and syphilis in Alaska combined with a nationwide spike in STIs are looking to keep Alaska number one for the time being.
Alaska’s recent STI outbreaks have quickly become a public health crisis. Gonorrhea transmissions rose 31 percent between 2015-2016, causing the Alaska Section of Epidemiology to alert the public of a statewide outbreak in 2017. The Alaska Public Health Advisory issued a similar alert in 2018 for syphilis, as cases in the first three months of 2018 already roughly match reported cases in each year from 2015-2017.
High rates of STIs are not unique to Alaska. As a state, we’re leading a nationwide rise in transmissions. More than two million cases of gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia were reported in the US in 2016, the most cases ever reported, according to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A couple of things help explain the recent spike. For one, the proliferation of hookup apps like Tinder and Grindr have made sex far more readily available. It’s also made sex more anonymous, which complicates STI prevention. Not knowing your sexual partner’s contact information after you test positive for an STI makes it more difficult to track them down and let them know that they’ve possibly contracted one too, allowing infections to spread more easily.
Another contributing factor is cuts in public funding for STI prevention and sex education. Since 2008, there are 50,000 fewer public health jobs in the US, and federal funding that keeps the doors of STI testing clinics open have become even less of a priority under the Trump administration. Moreover, state crackdowns on organizations like Planned Parenthood have reduced resources that help fight the spread of STIs.
What’s this all got to do with UAA? The vast majority of increased STIs are among college-age populations. This is important because college students experience a great deal of sexual freedom in college, where they often have their first sexual experiences. Young students unequipped with knowledge about safe sex combined with rising STI rates spells danger for the state, making our universities well-placed to help stem the crisis. Specifically, there are a few things that UAA can do to slow the rate of STI transmissions:
The first thing UAA should do is make comprehensive sex education a mandatory education requirement for incoming freshmen. Most students in Alaska enter college with very little formal sex education, thanks to poor state policies that make it harder to educate K-12 students. That means students begin university with a poor understanding of how to prevent STIs. In lieu of classes, students often receive their education from friends, the internet, and other unreliable sources. Building a mandatory semester-long, 3-credit class teaching the basics of sex education into the university’s curriculum would equip students with the knowledge they need to protect themselves, while teaching them the importance of consent and healthy relationships. Much like rudimentary classes such as science and philosophy, sex education should also be a part of our basic education.
UAA should also help the Student Health and Counseling Center hold classes on STI prevention around campus. Collaborating with Residence Life to hold them in the Gorsuch Commons or hall lounges would go a long way towards spreading educational resources.
Lastly, UAA should install access to prevention methods across campus. Residential campus would particularly benefit from condom dispensers in all the halls, as well as in nearby buildings like the Commons. Bathrooms in hubs like the Social Sciences Building and Cuddy Hall could also serve as locations for dispensers.
The most obvious objection to these solutions is the cost. Quality dispensers often run more than $100, condoms must be routinely replaced and a class would create extra costs for the university. However, the benefits of slowing the outbreak undoubtedly outweighs the costs. Left untreated, STIs like syphilis and gonorrhea can trigger health risks down the road that burden students with medical problems, possibly forcing them to leave school or drop out to deal with them. That provides UAA with both an incentive – and a duty— to give students the tools they need to stay educated and safe.