In the regression analyses, the coefficient of the TREND variable was negative for all 9 population groups examined for both syphilis and gonorrhea (Table 1), indicating a decrease in age disparity in syphilis and gonorrhea incidence over time. The estimated annual decline in the age RR was 5.3% for syphilis and 2.0% for gonorrhea for all races overall, and was most pronounced in white males (Table 1).
Our exclusion of New York did not impact our results. When we repeated the analysis from 1985 to 2005 including New York, we found similar, significant declines in the overall syphilis and gonorrhea age RRs (results not shown).
Our analysis yielded 2 main findings. First, for all populations examined, the age disparity in STD rates was more pronounced for females than for males. Second, for all populations examined, the age disparity in STD rates decreased from 1981 to 2005. These findings are consistent with recent reports of the changes in age groups at highest risk of syphilis. For example, the highest P&S syphilis rates in men in 1990 were observed in 20- to 24-year-olds, whereas the highest rates in men in 2003 were observed in 35- to 39-year-olds.5
It is likely that numerous factors contributed to the declining age disparity in STD rates. For example, potential contributing factors might include: Increased resources for STD prevention activities,11–14 which are typically targeted towards higher-risk groups (such as younger adults); behavioral responses to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome epidemic,15–17 which may have been more pronounced in younger persons18; improved diagnostic tests7,19,20 and their use in nontraditional venues21; changing social and sexual norms, such as views on premarital sex and divorce22–25; the impact of sexual enhancement aids such as Viagra (sildenafil citrate; Pfizer, NY, NY) on sexual behavior and STD risk, particularly among older adults26–28; more restrictive alcohol policies, particularly towards youth alcohol consumption (such as higher alcohol taxes, increased minimum legal drinking ages, and zero-tolerance driving laws)29–31; incarceration and its impact on the sex ratio of nonincarcerated persons32–36; and changes in acquired immunity in the population.37
This list of possible factors that may have influenced the distribution of STDs across ages is speculative, as the assessment of the potential impact of these factors on STD age RRs is beyond the scope of this report. Furthermore, this list of possible factors is not exhaustive, as many other factors not addressed may have contributed to the decline in the age disparity in STD rates over time.
Our analysis is subject to the usual limitations associated with historical STD surveillance data.1 For example, the degree to which STDs are underreported and the number of reported STD cases with missing, unknown, or invalid data for age may change over time.1 It is unlikely, however, that underreporting would influence our results unless there were substantial age-specific changes in the degree of underreporting or incomplete reporting during the years we examined.
In summary, the age disparity in syphilis and gonorrhea rates declined from 1981 to 2005, due to declining STD rates in younger persons as well as the lack of a comparable decline in STD rates in older persons. Future research is needed to clarify the main determinants of the relative decline in STD rates in younger persons and to inform programmatic responses to the changing age disparity in STD rates.
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