Los Angeles County Launches Unprecedented Media Campaign to Fight Sexually Transmitted Diseases

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has launched an innovative campaign to reverse the increase in cases of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia in the County. The public education campaign, funded by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, repeatedly and strongly urges young, sexually-active African American women and Latinas, gay and bi-sexual men to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) every six months.

The rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia are all alarmingly high and rising in our community, said Jonathan E. Fielding, MD, MPH, Public Health Director and County Health Officer. Last year alone, nearly 18,000 cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea were recorded among African American and Latina women younger than 25 years of age in LA County. Gay and bi-sexual men represented at least 1,000 cases of syphilis in 2006.

It is obvious we need a new way to tackle this situation. In conjunction with members of affected communities and with other stakeholders, we developed a campaign with the goal in mind to reduce the toll of these preventable diseases. There is no reason for anyone to suffer the devastating health consequences of these curable STDs when regular testing and treatment is easily available.

Gay and bi-sexual men in the County continue to face a serious problem with syphilis. In 2005, 85% of the recorded syphilis cases were among this group. Six out of 10 of those cases occurred among HIV-positive men. Untreated syphilis can have devastating health consequences, including impairment of the ability to walk, permanent vision loss, permanent hearing loss, and brain damage. Public Health identifies patients with these health outcomes every year.

There are more than 30,000 cases of chlamydia and more than 5,000 cases of gonorrhea in women alone every year in the County. African American and Latina women make up the largest number of those reported cases out of any other group.

Gonorrhea and chlamydia are often asymptomatic, so that infected individuals do not know they are infected, and do not seek medical care, said Peter R. Kerndt, MD, MPH, Director of the Sexually Transmitted Disease Program, Department of Public Health. However, these diseases can have serious consequences, including complications during pregnancy, chronic pelvic pain, and infertility.

The campaign uses guerilla marketing tactics such as graffiti murals, sidewalk drawings, printed drink coasters and mirror stickers in night clubs and gyms, along with traditional media such as posters and billboards. Women who are most at risk of contracting gonorrhea and chlamydia will see the message I Know or Yo S. The posters and other media feature confident African American and Latina women who say they know they can prevent serious health problems by getting tested, and if need be, cured. The Check Yourself portion of the campaign reminds gay and bi-sexual men to get regular testing for syphilis, and outlines the possible health consequences related to the disease.

The process that Public Health engaged in to develop these campaigns was unprecedented in the recent history of public health in LA County. The media campaigns were developed using an evidence-based approach – as is done in the commercial sector to develop campaigns – and extensive research, including reviewing the scientific literature, the department’s public health data, and focus groups with the affected populations, including working closely with community organizations, service providers, Public Health’s own scientific staff, and marketing professionals.

The campaign itself was conceptualized and developed by Fraser Communications in Santa Monica.

The campaign is part of a comprehensive public health strategy that includes augmented Public Health Investigator field staff to follow-up on treatment with patients; additional field staff placed at community agencies that have rapport with gay and bi-sexual men, and have detected large numbers of syphilis cases in their clients; and enhanced testing in the LA County jail system, where high rates of syphilis were previously detected.

Custom Web sites have been created to deliver the message to these difficult-to-reach audiences:

People who don’t have access to the Internet or who want to speak with someone can call the toll-free number set up for this campaign: 1-800-758-0880. Health educators are available at the number Monday through Friday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. They are able to talk with people about STD risk factors, symptoms, treatment options and where to find medical care throughout LA County. Information and health educators will be available in both Spanish and English.

The Department of Public Health is committed to protecting and improving the health of the nearly 10 million residents of Los Angeles County. Through a variety of programs, community partnerships and services, Public Health overseas environmental health, disease control, and community and family health. Public Health comprises more than 4,000 employees and an annual budget exceeding $700 million. For more information on Public Health and the work we do, please visit: