Public health officials, using STD Awareness Month as "an opportunity to call attention to dramatic increases in STDs in this county," say there are ways for individuals to protect themselves.

San Bernardino County officials have formed a community task force in an effort to counter the rise of treatable sexually transmitted disease cases, which have never been reported as high in this county's history.

Last year, the county's Department of Public Health (DPH) reported more than 15,000 cases of STDs, with the largest increases reflected in gonorrhea and syphilis, public health officials said this week. Individuals 15 to 24 years old accounted for nearly 60 percent of all new reported cases.

The county's STD frequency is also among the worst in the nation, officials said, ranking 16th for numbers of chlamydia and 25th for gonorrhea.

The increase of congenital syphilis, which can cause premature or stillborn births, is particularly glaring. There were no reported cases in the county in 2011, but 20 last year. There have been four so far in 2017, officials said.

"Infants can be born prematurely or be stillborn when a pregnant woman is infected and is not tested and treated," health officials said. "Congenital syphilis is completely preventable."

The task force held its first meeting Wednesday at San Bernardino Valley College, and DPH has cast a wide net to draw stakeholders into supporting efforts via the task force to reverse the startling trend, including reaching out to: community leaders and members; health provider offices; STD prevention groups; faith-based organizations; youth and others.

"STDs are treatable when caught early, but more importantly they are preventable," County Health Officer Dr. Maxwell Ohikhuare said in a statement. "Together, the STD Task Force will work to raise awareness, and increase testing and treatment."

The catalyst for the recent focus to quell rising STD cases is two-prong: April is STD Awareness Month and this county recently rated 46th in overall health of 57 counties in California in County Health Rankings.

The rankings, accumulated through a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, showed this county 39th in the state for health behaviors, which encompasses sexually transmitted infections.

The county also rated worse than the state average for adult smoking, adult obesity, physical inactivity and teen births. It rated better than the state for excessive drinking and alcohol-impaired driving deaths.

Public health officials, using STD Awareness Month as "an opportunity to call attention to dramatic increases in STDs in this county," say there are ways for individuals to protect themselves.

Abstinence is obviously the most effective method. Limiting the number of sexual partners and using latex condoms correctly and consistently is also advised, officials said, adding that alcohol and drugs might lower the tendency to use condoms.

Officials also recommend getting vaccinated for Human Papillomavirus (HPV).

"Many people with STD infections do not have symptoms so it's important to ask your doctor for a screening test at least yearly," officials said. "Having an STD makes it easier to get HIV, so it's important to ask for an HIV test also."

For more information about low-cost or no-cost STD or HIV testing, call the DPH at 800-722-4777 or find a testing site at gettested.cdc.gov. For more information or to register for the STD Task Force, call 800-722-4794 and ask for a health educator.

Shea Johnson can be reached at 760-955-5368 or SJohnson@VVDailyPress.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DP_Shea.