Heart-shaped balloons aren't the only things going up across the region this Valentine's Day. So are the growth rates of two sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) - with most new cases reported in the 15 to 29 age group.
A regional health task force is taking advantage of the holiday to promote awareness of the growing problems of chlamydia and gonorrhea.
The larger message:
•Testing is free, confidential and easier than in the past (a urine sample is all it takes).
•Both diseases are curable and treatment, too, is free.
•Information is available to help prevent these and other STDs.
The Mountain Empire Epidemiology Task Force (MEETF) released a study Tuesday that shows the number of cases of both those STDs have been on the increase in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia for several years.
The number of cases reported in the region is growing at twice the national rate.
The MEETF issued the report to raise awareness of the rising rate of sexually transmitted diseases and infections in the region.
According to the report, the incidences of the diseases are lower than state and national averages, but the rates at which people are contracting the STDs are higher.
The report shows a chlamydia rate increase of 15.3 percent in the region in the past 10 years, while the national rate increase was just 6.9 percent.
Between 35 percent and 40 percent of cases were reported in the 20 to 24 age group. Patients in the 15 to 19 age group accounted for another 35-plus percent of the cases reported. And about 15 percent of cases reported were in the 25 to 29 age group. Cases were also reported among patients in the youngest age group - 4 years old and younger - and the oldest age group - 45 and older.
The report shows a gonorrhea rate increase of 3.3 percent in the region in the past 10 years, compared to a national rate decrease of less than one-half of 1 percent.
About 30 percent of the cases were reported in the 20 to 24 age group. Patients in the 15 to 19 age group accounted for nearly 25 percent of the cases. And between 20 and 25 percent of the cases were reported in the 25 to 29 age group. Cases were also reported among patients between 5 years old and 14 years old and among the 34-plus crowd.
The rate of infections in the region - the number of cases per population - remain lower than state or national rates, but the rapid increase in the number of cases reported each year mean the margin is narrowing.
Most people infected with either disease will have no symptoms, health officials say.
MEETF sent a letter to physicians asking them to encourage patients to be tested for STDs.
"We are concerned," said Dr. John Dreyzehner, task force spokesman and director of the Cumberland Plateau Health District based in Russell County.
"While our rates are still generally below national and state averages, they continue to increase, and that should be a concern to both the health care community and sexually active patients in the Mountain Empire. If it's not on the radar screen for our residents and physicians, it needs to be."
Chlamydia cases are reported more frequently among females than among males, but health officials say that is in part due to females being more likely to be tested on a routine basis.
"Females are screened more frequently because of regular gynecologist visits, so more are diagnosed when routine tests are conducted," said Dreyzehner.
"If there is one case, that usually always means the partner is at risk or is infected with the disease. The difference is men are usually not tested until a problem arises. This makes it hard, sometimes, to identify cases.
"Men, on average, are not very anxious to experience those types of encounters, but the testing that is available these days can be done with minimal discomfort, and moreover, can usually be detected through urine samples."
Dr. David Stevens, CEO of the Christian Medical and Dental Association based in Bristol, said that while stressing preventative measures and testing is important, something also must be done to address the psychological damage done by these diseases, especially to women.
"We see that all the time, especially in young girls along the lines of high school or college who think, ‘this is the guy of my dreams,' and then something like that takes places. The female bears most of the ill effects of the relationship," said Stevens.
Women who have been infected can face the possibility of infertility, according to Stevens.
"Those are the consequences being reaped by those lifestyle choices. It comes back to haunt them 10 to 15 years later," Stevens said.
According to the report issued by MEETF:
•Chlamydia and gonorrhea are treatable conditions that generally do not cause severe complications. Some people think the diseases are just "big city" problems, but they're growing rapidly in the Mountain Empire region.
•Chlamydia trachomatis and Neisseria gonorrhoeae infections are the two most commonly reported notifiable conditions in the United States. Chlamydia and gonorrhea infections may result in pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), which is a major cause of infertility, ectopic pregnancy and chronic pelvic pain. In addition, pregnant women infected with chlamydia can pass the infection to their infants during delivery, potentially resulting in neonatal ophthalmia and pneumonia.
•Chlamydia and gonorrhea rates for the Mountain Empire region have risen at a much faster rate on an average annual basis than the comparison populations over the last 10 years.
For the report, the "Mountain Empire" region consists of the following counties. In Tennessee: Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington. In Virginia: Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Dickenson, Grayson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise and Wythe.
Free testing is available at any health department in the region and is confidential for patients over age 13, Sullivan County Regional Health Department officials said.
Dr. Stephen May, regional medical director for the department, said MEETF is encouraging everyone who is sexually active to be tested, especially those between 15 and 25 years old.