You might have heard the phrase “reportable disease” before, but what does it mean? A reportable disease is considered to be important enough for health professionals to track on a societal level. When a health care provider diagnoses a patient with a reportable disease, he or she must notify certain agencies of the occurrence of a new case of this disease.
The reporting process is confidential and allows health workers to reduce the spread of STDs.
Every state has its own list of reportable diseases. For example, in Arizona, a health care provider must report new cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea within five days, and must report new cases of chancroid, HIV, and syphilis within 30 days. Additionally, in the case of syphilis, they must investigate the possibility of a syphilis outbreak. State health departments will report their stats to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which tracks disease on a national scale. STDs that the CDC keeps track of are:
Does the fact that all these diseases are tracked and reported mean the government keeps a list of everyone with a reportable disease? No! Let’s say you’re diagnosed with chlamydia. Don’t worry, your identity and confidentiality are safe. What might happen is your tribal or county health department will be notified that there has been a new diagnosis of chlamydia. This local health department, in turn, will tally up all new diagnoses of chlamydia and forward them to the state health department, which will combine chlamydia stats to come up with the number of new chlamydia cases in the state. Then they’ll send their numbers — no names — to the CDC, which will pool them with the stats from the rest of the health departments in the nation to determine how many chlamydia diagnoses were made in the entire country.
Typically, health officials from a county or state will try to track down the sexual contacts of people diagnosed with reportable STDs. This practice is called partner notification, and it allows health workers not only to notify people of possible exposure to an STD, but to help them access testing, treatment, and counseling about preventive behaviors. The partner-notification process is confidential and follows HIPAA regulations. So, if a public health worker calls your ex to relay the news that he or she might have been exposed to chlamydia, your name will never be revealed. In fact, health departments know that maintaining confidentiality is essential to their work — if they lose the public’s trust, they won’t be able to reach their goal, which is to reduce the incidence of STD transmission.
If you would prefer to notify your partner(s) yourself, workers from a local health department can even help you figure out how to start that conversation. For example, a representative from the Pima County Health Department told us that they will provide patients examples of what to say, and sometimes can even role-play these difficult conversations.
While chlamydia is one of the most common reportable diseases in the country, some of these STDs are very rare. For example, from 2008 to 2012, there was only one case of chancroid reported in the entire state of Arizona — which might explain why you’ve probably never heard of it. Syphilis is also rare compared to chlamydia, with less than 50,000 new cases reported nationwide in 2012 — not a lot stacked up against 1.4 million new cases of chlamydia.
Why do we need to keep track of disease prevalence, anyway? Monitoring the incidence of certain diseases allows us to identify outbreaks, see if diseases are becoming more or less common, address disparities in which a disease affects one population more than others, ensure that communities have sufficient supplies of vaccines, and do other important things to help improve public health.
For example, the disease watchers at the CDC must have been pleased to observe a 79 percent drop in gonorrhea cases between 1975 and 2009. But after 2009, the gonorrhea rate started climbing back up again. Unfortunately, treating gonorrhea is becoming more and more difficult thanks to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of the disease — which the CDC is also tracking. Knowing which populations are most at risk, and what regions of the country are most impacted, can help them respond to changes in disease patterns, whether they’re educating the public about safer sex or advocating for research into new antibiotics.
Or, take syphilis. While syphilis rates are remaining steady in the general population, we’ve noticed that they are actually rising in certain populations — especially among men who have sex with men. Armed with such knowledge, health workers can do outreach in the gay community to encourage condom use and syphilis testing.
Historically speaking, the emergence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, landed on our radars after a cluster of rare diseases was reported from Los Angeles. Reading about such unusual diagnoses arising from one part of the country allowed health professionals elsewhere to put two and two together — and they soon figured out that a new virus was responsible for this strange new syndrome.
So a fear of Big Brother watching you — and keeping your name on a list somewhere — shouldn’t deter you from getting screened for diseases, including sexually transmitted diseases. While there is no such list out there, there is already plenty of fear and stigma surrounding STDs, so on top of everything else you shouldn’t have to worry about your privacy when you go in to get tested. Even if you’re the only person in your state diagnosed with chancroid one year, curious visitors to the CDC’s website will only be able to note that Arizona saw only one case of chancroid in 2011 — but, unless that web surfer is your health care provider, no one will know that it was you!