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Behind the Headlines: Why does St. Louis still lead the country in STDs?

Faisel Khan, Brad Stoner and Maheen Bokhari
Aaron Doerr | St. Louis Public Radio
Faisel Khan, Brad Stoner and Maheen Bokhari

There was a hubbub earlier this week when St. Louis, which recently lost its crown for having the highest STD rates in the country to Alabama, was found out to be on top once again due to an accounting error.Joining host Don Marsh to discuss the high rates of STDs in the region were Brad Stoner, Medical Director, St. Louis STD/HIV Prevention Training Center and Associate Professor of Sociocultural Anthropology at Washington University; Maheen Bokhari, Program Manager, Communicable Disease Division of the St. Louis Health Department; and Faisal Khan, Director, St. Louis County Health Department.

Stoner explained that just as with the crime statistics, St. Louis gets a bum rap because only the city statistics are used in the rankings that put St. Louis as number 1 in STDs. The combined city and county numbers put the region in the middle of the pack. But all three guests agree that the numbers are too high and the regional cooperation between the two jurisdictions in addressing them is essential. Since 2015 the city and county health departments have worked together to tackle the crisis.

The frustration for public health officials is that STDs are totally preventable by the use of condoms, but the reluctance to talk openly and frankly about sex keeps that information from reaching those who need it. “We need to be having conversations around the dinner table with family members and loved ones about the dangers posed by STDs,” said Khan. “We need to have school nurses and curricula in schools discuss these issues in a meaningful, skills based manners. There is nothing immoral about preventing disease. There is a preponderance of evidence to suggest that strong prevention programs do not promote promiscuous behavior.”   

But there are programs that are helping to get the word out. “It’s oddly simple,” said Bokhari. “We need to just go out and meet the community where they are. We have a program we are in love with called Fadeout HIV where we actually go into the community barber shops and beauty shops and we educate the actual beauticians and barbers about how to stay safe, where to find resources, where to get people connected into care because they can have those same conversations with their clients.”

ALL three STDs, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis, can be treated once they are identified, so getting the word out about testing and treatment centers is important. Testing is offered at St. Louis Effort for AIDS, Project ARK, The SPOT and Williams and Associates in the city. The county has an STD clinic in the North Central Community Health Center in Pine Lawn. A list of testing and treatment centers is available on the STL Condoms website. In addition, any hospital, urgent care center or medical practitioner should be able provide testing.

Khan pointed to a "shining example" of what could and should be done to deal with STDs and other health issues. Jennings School District has placed a clinic in its high school. In addition to addressing all of the students' health needs, academic performance has increased as well. Another community asset is The Spot Youth Center in the Central West End.

“The only roadblock to progress on this is our own reluctance and our own prudishness and stupidity. And we need to get beyond that because we are drowning in STDs,” said Khan. Stoner agreed and added, “STDs are a community health problem, not an individual one…We will continue to have high rates until we focus more of our community effort towards it.”Don Marsh and his guests talk about the high rate of STDs in the St. Louis region.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air and Cityscape.
Mary Edwards came to St. Louis Public Radio in 1974, just after finishing her Bachelor of Music degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She has served the station in a number of capacities over the years, and is currently Production Manager. In addition to overseeing all the production activities at the station, she is the producer of St. Louis Public Radio’s two local talk/call-in shows, “St. Louis on the Air” and “Cityscape,” and the live Saturday night broadcasts of the St. Louis Symphony. Mary also teaches an undergraduate class in radio production at Webster University and serves as Secretary of the University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Fine Arts and Communication Alumni Board. In her spare time, she enjoys playing the flute, participating in various music activities at her church, and water skiing.