New data shows more North Carolinians are engaging in risky sexual behaviors.
According to the latest America’s Health Rankings (AHR) report, North Carolina’s worst health score was in sexual behaviors.
The lowest score was for HIV-related high-risk behaviors. The state was ranked 48th with a 7.3% percentage of adults engaging in risky behaviors. The national average was 5.7%.
Dr. Jenna Beckham, WakeMed Raleigh OB/GYN, said she wasn’t surprised to learn the new data.
“North Carolina unfortunately has a history of fairly high rates of not only HIV but also other sexually transmitted infections. This most recent data is not that new in terms of the trends that we have seen in our statewide data and also in the patients that I care for,” Beckham said.
While other states have seen rates decline steadily throughout the pandemic, Beckham explained that North Carolina “hasn’t seen as much of a decline.”
“We have certainly seen a continued increase in many of our sexually transmitted infections in North Carolina. Some have declined very slightly over the last few years, but overall we’re not really heading into a downward trend. For some things, like chlamydia, our rates of increase continue to exceed the rates of increase in national data,” Beckham explained.
Beckham said many of his patients identify as LGBTQ+. HIV tends to have higher rates among the LGBTQ+ community.
“Others, like gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, don’t seem to have as great a negative impact on this patient population,” Bekham said.
OB/GYN said incident rates are increasing particularly among younger patients.
The latest report on assisted reproduction showed that HPV vaccinations among North Carolina adolescents were also lower than the national average.
Statewide, 55% of adolescents ages 13 to 17 were fully vaccinated against HPV. Nationally, the average is closer to 63%.
Beckham said one of the biggest contributing factors to the increase in sexually transmitted diseases is stigma and a lack of sex education. She said conversations should be encouraged at home and at school.
“A lot of this type of education begins in our schools, where children are at the age where they are beginning to explore sexuality and learn about sexual safety and risky sexual behaviors,” she said . “Many school systems don’t even offer sex education. And when they do, it’s very, very limited.
Beckham continued: “There are certain cultural and societal things, and sometimes in the South there can be more associations with certain conservative beliefs and certain stricter religious policies. And so some families don’t talk about it either.
The doctor explained that this often leads younger generations to not practice safe sex during their first sexual experiences.
Beckham also said sex education in rural communities needs to be more of a priority because access to health care there is lower than in more urban areas.
Beckham encourages people of all ages to be more mindful of their sexual behaviors, especially as Valentine’s Day approaches. She said following regular screenings, having open conversations with your sexual partners and practicing safe sex can all reduce your risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
“Sometimes gonorrhea and chlamydia can even be asymptomatic,” Beckham warned. “So if patients don’t know what to watch out for and don’t see a health care provider regularly and follow recommended screenings, they may go undiagnosed and therefore continue to spread it and infect others sexual partners.
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