Although public health issues usually get lots of news coverage, a crisis threatening the physical and emotional well-being of thousands of Louisiana residents has gotten little attention. The latest statistics from the national Centers for Disease Control show that Louisiana continues to be among the states most plagued by sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs. Sadly, on some critical measures, the problem here seems to be getting worse. That should be a wake-up call for Louisiana’s political, civic and spiritual leaders. Clearly, this is a crisis that government alone can’t resolve.
The new CDC numbers are sobering. For years, Louisiana has ranked among the highest of states for three major STDs — chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. Even worse, Louisiana moved up in the 2016 rankings. It now has the second-highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea and the highest for syphilis.
Nationwide, rates have increased significantly in the past five years, despite promises that Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid would make Americans healthier. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s STD problem has increased at an even higher clip than the national average.
Within Louisiana’s African-American community, the problem is especially acute. The CDC’s 2015 data shows that for chlamydia, African-Americans suffer at a rate four times the rest of the public; for gonorrhea, six times; and for syphilis, seven times. The incidence of congenital syphilis, where Louisiana leads the nation overall, is almost 10 times higher among African-American mothers.
Income and education disparities can’t fully explain what’s driving the problem. Some states with much higher personal incomes and better educational systems such as California, Illinois, and New York have STD rates almost as high as Louisiana’s. Still other states like Alabama, Arkansas, and West Virginia — ranking below Louisiana on income and having similar public education challenges — have much lower STD rates.
Spending money on prevention programs or compulsory sex education in the schools might make a dent in the spread of STDs, but the scale of the crisis argues for something more comprehensive. Political, civic and religious institutions must do what they can to affirm the values of chastity and self-respect for all citizens. By promoting government policies that advance self-reliance and celebrate the sanctity of life, the state’s leaders can nurture a culture that values delayed gratification as a personal and civic good.
More aggressive enforcement and prosecution of sex trafficking and prostitution would help, too. This is a health crisis that calls everyone in Louisiana, regardless of race or walk of life, to act. Until we do, the state will continue to be at or near the top of yet another “bad list” that limits its promise.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics, www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter @jsadowadvocate or email firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.