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The country's rate of the three most common sexually transmitted diseases has reached a record for the fifth consecutive year.
The country's rate of the three most common sexually transmitted diseases has reached a record for the fifth consecutive year. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun)

Remember learning to put a condom on a banana or cucumber? Back in the ’90s safe sex messages were seemingly everywhere. They were plastered on billboards and the sides of buses and featured in public service announcements on television and radio. Popular artists reminded people to use condoms and other forms of birth control in song lyrics. R&B trio BBD sang about the need to wear a jimmy and body bag — slang terms for condoms. And the Spice Girls cautioned “be a little bit wiser, baby. Put it on, put it on" in their song “2 Become 1.”

Over time, those messages were muted thanks to cuts in public health marketing budgets and medical breakthroughs making HIV/AIDS — fear of which drove the safe sex revolution — both less deadly and less scary. We’re seeing the consequences of the silence now, however, in the steady rise of Sexually Transmitted Diseases.

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Combined cases of the three most common STDs — syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia — reached an all time high last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Most disturbing is the fact that the number of newborns who died from congenital syphilis increased by 22%.

Incessant social issues that contribute to a host of health inequalities — including poverty, unstable housing and drug use — are partially to blame, along with a trend among young people as well as those who are gay and bisexual using condoms less frequently, despite it being the best way to not to contract an STD.

The word clearly isn’t getting out that every time somebody goes without a condom, it leaves them vulnerable to becoming part of the statistics. On top of that, long-lasting birth control makes it easier for young people to get caught up in moments of passion without fear of pregnancy; they need to be reminded that STDs are also something to avoid and can have serious health effects.

It is true the diseases can be treated with antibiotics and other medications, but many times there are no symptoms and people don’t even know they are infected. Not only does this increase the risk of spreading disease, but left untreated STDs can put people at risk for reproductive and other health issues that include chronic pain, ectopic pregnancy and infertility.

The CDC is working on a plan to stop the rise in STDs that is expected to be released next year. It should include funds to help local health departments attack the problem with good, old-fashioned public health messages. Sometimes the tried and true is the best answer. The federal agency has found in its own research that cuts to sexual health program at the local and state level has helped to fuel the problem.

Strong messaging has worked in the past. The more in the face the better. In Alaska, a campaign dubbed “Wrap it Up Alaska” helped bring down high chlamydia rates. Health officials gave out condoms and posters to health centers, universities, family planning clinics and tribal health centers throughout the state. But what really worked were provocative posters that included catchy, head-turning slogans with Alaskan themes. For example, the message “drill safely,” appeared next to an image of an oil tower; they weren’t referring to black gold.

The messaging hasn’t disappeared completely. Earlier this year, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in partnership with the ICON condom brand, placed billboards in several markets promoting condom use in light of International Condom Day in February.

We need to see even more such messaging. STDs rates have reached record highs for the last five years and there is no reason for that given that they can be so easily prevented. People often stigmatize those with STDs and find it hard to show them compassion. But even those folks should feel for the babies who are dying because of the spread of disease. When the most vulnerable are suffering, everything possible needs to be done to stop it.

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