MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - The headlines were enough to give industry recruiters and chamber of commerce officials nightmares: "Groups ranks Montgomery as most sexually diseased city," said USA Today. Similar headlines popped up on news media web sites across the nation. Obviously that was not the kind of news coverage a community's leaders hope to get.
The original report actually did not come from a health agency or even a recognized news media organization. It came from numbers crunched by an organization called RentApplication.com, which appears to offer tenant screening services for landlords. The site said it used data from the Centers for Disease Control to arrive at its numbers, without being specific in just how it did that.
A couple of other caveats for readers: The report only covers three sexually transmitted diseases -- syphilis, gonorrhea and Chlamydia. It does not cover other STDs, such as herpes and HIV. Include those and the rankings might change drastically. Also, the report reflects data from 2013. Even though it is common for reports to lag months or years behind the year reflected in data, Montgomery's standing may have changed significantly already. Finally, some of the news reports miss the good news that Montgomery STD cases are actually going down, according to a state health official.
Such quibbles aside, this much is clear: Montgomery's STD rate is far too high, and unless it is lowered dramatically the community runs the possibility of having similar negative headlines pop up around the country when newer data become available in the future.
To avoid that, I would urge Montgomery city and county officials to partner with state health officials to ensure that there is a strong focus on reducing the incidence of STDs in Montgomery.
State health officials are already working hard to address the spread of STDs, and not just in Montgomery. High STD rates are a problem statewide. In 2013 Alabama ranked third among the states in Chlamydia cases, second in gonorrhea cases, and 23rd for primary and secondary syphilis cases.
Alabama ranked 18th among the states in 2013 in the rate of HIV cases diagnosed.
Dr. Mary McIntyre, assistant state health officer for disease control, told WSFA that the Alabama Department of Public Health has been working to address and find solutions to the state's STD problems for years.
But she acknowledged the numbers are still too high.
"Based on the resources we have, we have been working on innovative approaches to try to address it," she said.
Please note the phrase "based on the resources we have." The ADPH is one of the agencies funded through the state's General Fund budget, which faces major cuts unless the Alabama Legislature finds new revenue in the special session that resumes next week.
Local officials, agencies and community groups do not need to get involved in setting policy or deciding medical issues -- those are best left to the medical professionals.
So how can they help, other than urging the Legislature to adequately fund health programs? Education and information are key weapons in fighting sexually transmitted diseases of all kinds. Local governments and community groups -- even churches -- can and should do all within their power to spread the correct information on how to prevent contracting a sexually transmitted disease and the need to seek medical care for yourself and your sexual partners if you do contract it.
However, a public information campaign should be done only after coordinating efforts with state public health officials. Giving the wrong information to the public could do more harm than good.
Of course, local officials and community groups all over the state can -- and should -- help to get the message to the public on the dangers of unsafe sex and the need to get treatment quickly.
But nowhere is that more important than in Montgomery County, which faces the likelihood of more negative headlines in future years if more is not done here to reduce the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases.
Four decades ago Montgomery led the nation in the rate of infant mortality. The community rallied to do something about that problem. While infant mortality rates in Alabama and the Montgomery area remain higher than they should be, local efforts helped to make dramatic improvements. The seeds that were sown back then are still bearing fruit today, helping to save young lives. Local leaders did not just wait for the state to do something.
Montgomery can make the same kind of difference in lowering the rate of sexually transmitted diseases. But it will take leadership at the local level, partnering with the state, for that to happen.
Ken Hare is a former newspaper reporter, editorial page editor and editorial writer who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Contact him at email@example.com.