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Although Fresno State is located in the heart of the county with the highest chlamydia rate in California, the campus lacks a formal sexual health campaign or club. On top of this, contraceptive prices at the campus health center may rise this year due to new legislation.

High Chlamydia rates spur reaction

Although Fresno State is located in the heart of the county with the highest chlamydia rate in California, the campus lacks a formal sexual health campaign or club.

On top of this, contraceptive prices at the campus health center may rise this year due to new legislation.

But campus health officials say they are going to do something about it.

Within the next two years, University Health and Psychological Services officials and the newly hired wellness coordinator, Kathleen Yarmo hope to introduce a formal sexual health awareness campaign and eliminate the cost of sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing and birth control for students.

Most forms of birth control are available at the health center for about $20 per monthly pack. However, several universities have seen contraceptive costs rise this year after the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act was passed.

The act, which went into effect last January, makes it harder for companies to offer birth control at low costs because of the way they now calculate Medicaid rebates they owe the government for medications.

“That really hurts our cause when we’re trying to prevent pregnancy,” said Rebecca Russler, a nurse practitioner on campus.

But she is hopeful that Fresno State will adopt the Family Planning Access Care and Treatment (PACT) program – a federally funded program for low-income Californians – within two years.

“It would make a lot of things free, including STD testing and birth control,” Russler said.

Currently, chlamydia and gonorrhea tests run $15 each. An HIV test is $10.50 and a herpes simplex virus test is $39.50.

Women can be tested for human papillomavirus (HPV) – one of the most common STDs – at the campus health center for $34.50. It is estimated that one out of four sexually active people will become infected with genital HPV at least once in their lifetime, Russler said.

Fresno State students need to be aware of the dangers of having sex because most are in the “high risk” age range for contracting an STD – 15 to 24 years old. For at least nine months out of the year, they live in or commute to the county with the highest chlamydia rate in the state, local health officials say.

Nearly 5,300 chlamydia cases were reported in Fresno County last year, according to the latest estimates from the California Department of Health Services. This would make the county’s chlamydia rate at 581.9 cases per 100,000 people. The state’s average is 363.5.

This isn’t anything new for Fresno. The county has topped the list almost every year since at least 2001, surpassed only once by Madera County in 2004.

Last year, the campus health center tested 900 Fresno State students for chlamydia. Forty-four tested positive for the disease.

Using these numbers, Fresno State would have a rate of 192 chlamydia cases per 100,000 people – slightly more than half of the state’s average.

But this is not an accurate estimate because not all Fresno State students get tested at the health center, Russler said.

“Many more go to Planned Parenthood because of the cost – it’s free,” Russler said. “Here there is a cost for a lot of those tests. [The cost is] minimal, but for a college student, sometimes it’s hard to spare the money for it.”

Sophomore Jared Garcia said he would go to the health center or Planned Parenthood for any sexual health services. But first he would compare the costs of testing at both locations.

“Definitely, I’m a poor college student,” he said.

Health officials like Yarmo want to get the word out about these services by first addressing students who live on campus and in sorority and fraternity houses, then expand to school-wide forums in the student union.

“We want to do a peer health education program to get the word out about sexually transmitted infections, birth control and sexual health in general,” Yarmo said.

Garcia, a Sigma Nu brother, said he gets his sexual health education from “peers, word-of-mouth and the seminars that our fraternity makes us go to.”

He said he is unsure whether an STD awareness campaign would effectively lower the rates of STDs on campus.

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “It would be good if it did, but it depends on if people listen to it or ignore it.”

Sophomore Victoria Torrez thinks that an awareness campaign on campus could be effective if a group is enthusiastic enough.

“When people are passionate about it, it gets my attention,” she said. “If they have a lot of signs and hand out brochures in the student union, then I’ll listen.”

But even during last year’s much-hyped Wellness Challenge, only one student attended one of the two STD classes offered, Russler said.

Facing this lack of enthusiasm, doctors and nurses at the health center attempt to do their best to inform students who come in for health services.

“We educate them and give them pamphlets,” Russler said. “We have videos to show. But we can’t wait for them to come to us.”

Fresno County’s chlamydia rates dropped off slightly after 2002 due to an $80,000 state grant that funded a two-year chlamydia awareness campaign.

Campus health officials think there’s no reason Fresno State can’t follow suit, as long as there is a group of dedicated educators and students to spread the word.

STD rates among Fresno State students

Sexually transmitted disease tests conducted by the University Health and Psychological Services lab in 2006

Disease # of students tested

Chlamydia 900
Gonorrhea 804
Syphilis 336
HPV* 1,069

Disease # of students who tested positive

Chlamydia 44
Gonorrhea 2
Syphilis 3
HPV* 16

*High-risk human papillomaviruses that are associated with cervical cancer.