One poster with a beaming, vintage housewife reads:
“Judgey Janet might call you a tramp. We just want you to call.”
In another poster, a gorgeous, twentysomething man gazes out with smouldering eyes. Below him, the message — “Get tested, beautiful.”
They’re part of an education campaign kicked off early this year by the state, targeting Androscoggin and Cumberland counties and the areas’ sharp rise in gonorrhea.
Last year, almost half of Maine’s reported cases were in Androscoggin County.
Posters have popped up in hair salons, nightclubs and colleges, any place they can reach young women, the largest group testing positive for the sexually transmitted disease.
And the campaign might be working.
In the first seven months of 2012, Androscoggin County had 113 reported cases. Year to date, it has 51.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears is cautiously optimistic.
“Obviously, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish — but it’s still 51 cases,” he said.
In 2012, the state had 456 reports of gonorrhea, 193 of them in Androscoggin County. After seeing a steady rise for four years and sharp increase in 2012, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention began releasing a biweekly disease surveillance report last December, a sign the state had stepped up its concern.
“One of the things people don’t realize, many, many, many cases are asymptomatic in women, so they don’t know, and it can lead to serious consequences,” Sears said.
Gonorrhea is passed by unprotected sexual contact and can lead to infertility and ectopic pregnancies in women and infertility in men. Symptoms can include discharge and painful urination. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all.
Rates have been highest in Maine in Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties.
“Some of that is population density and some of that is urban population that’s probably closer to areas of the country that have more . . . (places like) Massachusetts,” Sears said. “I’m not going to blame our diseases on other people, but there’s more co-mingling and co-mixing and there’s more people traveling back and forth.”
Lewiston has had a long-standing issue with drug dealers coming up from cities in Massachusetts to sell here.
According to the national CDC, Massachusetts had a rate of 35.9 gonorrhea cases per 100,000 people in 2011, the latest year figures are available. Maine ranked 44th in the country with a rate of 20.5 cases. The top state, with the worst rate, was Louisiana at 202.3.
So far, Maine has recorded 161 cases year to date, 49 of them women ages 20 to 29.
“You don’t put on PSAs and necessarily get to that population,” Sears said. “We know that when the disease gets introduced to younger populations, it can just continue and reverberate in some ways unless you do something to really change the dynamics.”
The nonprofit Medical Care Development designed the new ads. The last time the Maine CDC tried something similarly eye-catching was several years ago, around syphilis.
“Our goal is not so much a cute campaign,” he said. “It really is, ‘Can we attract the attention of the people that we need to attract to get the treatment they need?'” he said.
The new posters and palm-size pamphlets direct people to a website, www.seeMEtested.com, and to a number for more information, 795-4019.
This year, there’s been a steady to slight increase in the number of people getting tested for gonorrhea and fewer cases being found, to Sears’ mind, a sign people are getting treatment.
Testing is recommended for anyone who has had multiple partners or doesn’t know the sexual history of their partner. It can be passed back and forth if both parties aren’t treated, and can be passed by oral, anal and vaginal sex.
“A lot of the people are just not aware either that they’re at risk, the disease is around or perhaps they’ve been exposed,” Sears said.
Though the figures are high, one startling number on the new posters — a “314 percent increase in gonorrhea in the last year” — is not entirely accurate.
Cases were up 67 percent between 2011 and 2012. Sears said 314 represents a median increase over five years, which he said is something commonly done with these type of statistics. In 2008, Maine had just 96 reported cases of gonorrhea.