MOUNT PLEASANT, SC (WCIV) — Charleston is synonymous with many things: church steeples, carriage rides, that famous dance, and, of course, rich history.
Perhaps surprisingly, it's now also synonymous among some in the medical community with a strain of a highly infectious sexually transmitted disease.
Statistics from South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control show rates of certain sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on the rise.
In particular, the report shows a spike in newly diagnosed Chlamydia cases in 4 different regions across South Carolina. Since 2017, state records show over 90,000 new diagnoses.
In 2017, that report shows rates here in the Lowcountry hovered at just over 1,472 cases per 100,000 people.
Dr. Jenifer Miller of Any Lab Test Now says Chlamydia has become so prevalent in and around the Holy City, health professionals have now dubbed it the “Charleston Strain.”
Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester and even Orangeburg counties have all seen their rates rise in the past 3 years.
- (CLICK HERE to see a county-by-county breakdown of STD numbers in South Carolina)
Miller says her lab locations in Mount Pleasant and West Ashley perform more than 20 Chlamydia tests per week.
“I’d say about one third of them are going to be positive,” Miller said.
But this is nothing new for the 20-year medical industry veteran.
Miller says she sees STD Rates rise and fall in waves.
“It seems to be after the holidays, the numbers will go up, and especially in the summer time," she said.
Right now, that wave is crashing into our coastal communities again, bringing a unique and unwanted moniker.
"If you look at the number of chlamydia cases for the size of our city, the numbers are fairly high," Miller commented.
So, what's behind the troubling trend? Miller says the answer lies with the Charleston area itself.
“Charleston is kind of like Ellis island,” she said. “Everybody moves here from all over the place. We have two military bases. We do have two colleges that are populated: The Citadel and the College of Charleston. And a couple of other smaller colleges in the area.”
Miller says its also due to younger people not practicing safe sex. State health data suggests almost 90 percent of all new Chlamydia cases are diagnosed in people between 18 and 30 years old.
In early January, Miller showed us two positive tests taken just the day before. Each case is reported to county health departments.
"When I do report it to DHEC in Charleston County, they have told me over the phone that it is so prevalent here in Charleston that there is a strain known as the Charleston strain.” Miller said. “You aren't going to find it Las Vegas or Los Angeles, but you will find it here in Charleston.”
Chlamydia is treatable, but waiting for test results can take up to 48 anxious hours.
"It can be a delicate situation for certain people, especially the younger people; those who are freshman in college and may not have been sexually active, then all the sudden they have a disease," Miller said. "Those are the ones who think the rest of their lives are ruined."
We caught up with a couple of College of Charleston freshman, and asked if they thought the college is doing enough to educate students.
“We learned a little bit about it in our freshman class, but I feel l they can still do more," freshman Reece Hammond said. "There's a free STD testing day, and they do that, but beyond that, they don't do too much."
CofC Freshman Jack Sutton said much of the same.
“I feel like I should be concerned about it, but we don't really have too much education about it on campus,” Sutton said.
Asked if they thought area colleges offered free contraceptive services and STD prevention, both freshmen acknowledged the school did, but admitted many students most likely don’t take advantage.
“I don’t think they do,” Sutton said.
Privacy laws prevent CofC from releasing the number of students diagnosed with STDs, but the college does have a dedicated health education officer and plenty of contraceptive services and information posted online.
*(Correction: A typo in a previous version of this story led to an erroneous figure of roughly 3 cases per 20 people. The true figure is roughly three cases per 200 people. The story has been updated to reflect the accurate number.)