DECATUR — As sexually transmitted infection rates, or STIs, continue to increase in Macon County, a program aimed at improving these rates is losing federal funding, health providers said.
The Planned Parenthood program, the Safer Sex Initiative, follows patients who may be at risk for teenage pregnancy or high STI rates.
In July, 80 people were diagnosed wtih chlamydia and 39 people had gonorrhea. And in August, 62 people had chlamydia and 27 had gonorrhea.
All of the STIs rose from 2015 to 2016 in Macon County. In 2006, Macon County had the highest gonorrhea rate in the state at 487.6 cases per 100,000 people. Now, Macon County is second in the state after Peoria county, with a rate of 319.6 per 100,000.
The Safer Sex Initiative was intended to be funded for five years but will only continue because of reserve funding from Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said Brigid Leahy, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois. The goal is to provide one-on-one counseling and education to lower these numbers.
“It just makes so much sense, so I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to plan for the future and make sure we have a healthy generation coming up,” she said.
The $213.6 million program was originally funded through the U.S. Office of Adolescent Health at the Department of Human Services. It was granted to more than 80 organizations around the country, including Macon County.
The funding will end June 30, due to the President Trump administration's efforts to cut federal budget support for Planned Parenthood and other organizations that fund abortions.
Planned Parenthood and others are excluded from using federal dollars to pay for most abortion services, except in instances of rape or incest or in situations in which a woman’s life is in danger. That is spelled out in the Hyde Amendment, which Congress approved in 1976 and has renewed each year.
Leahy said the focus of the Safer Sex Initiative is not related to abortion but helps educate young women about safe sex practices and making more informed decisions.
Macon County was chosen to pilot this program due to high teen pregnancy rates, as well as high sexually transmitted infection rates.
“Every year we are notified (by the state) about our gonorrhea rate,” Annie Haubner, a nurse at the Macon County Public Health Department said. “And we have to talk about it and discuss it, get out feedback on what we are seeing in the clinic and in the reports.”
With such high numbers, there isn’t just one group affected; STIs affect everyone, Haubner said.
“We see all walks of life through that clinic, and anyone of them could have something,” she said.
Health department officials hope the high numbers mean that the education efforts are working and more people are getting tested and treated, Hosier said. But she isn’t positive this is the reason, she added, because there hasn’t been an increase in testing at the health department.
“We have been concerned for quite some time about this issue in Macon County,” Leahy said. “The message we are trying to get out, 'Yes we know there is a problem in this area, but we are working to address it.’”
Teen births in Macon County were 49 per 1,000 births, according to the 2017 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state average is 30, according to the report.
So far, the program is effective, said Julie Aubert with Planned Parenthood in Macon County. At the beginning, each participant sets a goal, and 90 percent reach those goals, she said.
Some of the proven ways to decrease STIs and teenage pregnancy rates are though education, including proper preventative measures during sexual activity, and reducing the number of partners.
But overall, Aubert said, the high numbers remain staggering, despite being high for years, and the root cause is unclear.
“It’s a conundrum; education is increasing, but rates are increasing,” she said.
One question to address, Leahy said, is what other information young people need to prevent spreading STIs in addition to preventing pregnancy.
Marisa Hosier, teen pregnancy and STI prevention coordinator with the Macon County Health Department, said one common misconception is that birth control prevents STIs, which is not true. People still need to use condoms and practice other safe practices, she said.
Most STIs are asymptomatic in women. This means a woman could have a sexually transmitted infection, but have no idea because she wouldn’t have any symptoms. These infections, however, can cause serious problems to a woman’s body and permanent damage to her reproductive system. This is why it is important for anyone who is sexually active to get routine screenings, Haubner said.
An STI clinic is open on Tuesday and Thursday from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. at the Macon County Health Department. A test is a $10 fee or can be paid by medicaid or insurance.
The treatment plan is included in the original fee. The health department also offers free condoms, no questions asked. At Planned Parenthood, if one sexual partner tests positive for a sexually transmitted infection, a prescription can be filled for the other partner as well.
Both organizations want to dispel the taboo of being tested for STIs, Hosier said.
“It really does matter, and people just don’t want to talk about it,” Hosier said. “It’s not something to be ashamed of, it’s a part of life.”