Sexually transmitted diseases in the US are at a crisis point. On Monday, prominent public health experts and government officials raised the alarm about the continued annual rise in STDs. Preliminary data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that cases of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia rose last year.
This week, the CDC and the National Coalition of SOA Directors hosting their regular STD prevention conference, which takes place every two years and is virtual this year due to the covid-19 pandemic. But while the conference aims to highlight promising technological advances and initiatives, speakers have been quick to point out that the current status quo is quite dire.
“It is imperative that we… work to rebuild, innovate and expand [STD] prevention in the US,” Leandro Mena, director of the CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in his address Monday, according to the Associated Press. reporting. In another speech, David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors, went so far as to call the issue “out of control.”
Earlier this month, the CDC issued preliminary 2021 figures from ongoing SOA surveillance data. There were at least 2.5 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis in the US in 2021, the top three STIs that doctors and local health departments are required to detect and report (other serious STIs such as HIV or hepatitis B are monitored as good but their numbers are analyticalzed and reported elsewhere). This number of cases is known to be an underestimate, as not all infections cause symptoms and many people are not regularly tested for STIs.
Cases of chlamydia in 2021 (about 1.63 million cases) were slightly below their peak in 2019 but were higher than the 2020 total, and cases of gonorrhea and syphilis have continued to rise year over year. There were 696,764 reported cases of gonorrhea in 2021, along with 171,074 cases of syphilis. Rates and cases of congenital syphilis passed from mother to child in the womb have also increased, with 2,677 cases in 2021. These infections, which are completely preventable with a timely course of antibiotics, can cause life-threatening complications. At least 139 newborns died of syphilis in 2020.
Gonorrhea has its own unique challenges. While infections often do not cause disease and are very rarely life-threatening, the bacteria that cause gonorrhea are: get resistance quickly among the few frontline antibiotics still available to treat them. And without effective drugs, cases of gonorrhea are more likely to cause serious complications, such as infertility or blindness in newborns who contract the infection while in the womb.
If all this isn’t bad enough, 2022 has also seen the widespread global rise of human monkeypox. While the viral disease can spread to others through any form of prolonged contact, the current epidemic is primarily transmitted through contact during sex, mostly among men who have sex with men with multiple recent partners. The future of monkey pox is uncertain, but many experts fear it could be a new one regularly occurring STDs, albeit one that can be managed with an effective vaccine and antiviral treatments.
In his speech, Mena argued that steps can still be taken to reduce the incidence of STDs. These include reducing the stigma associated with STIs, educating and convincing people to use safe sex practices such as condoms, and making it easier and cheaper for people to get tested. An important way to improve testing, he added, would be the development of home tests, similar to those now widely available for Covid-19 or pregnancy.
“I imagine a day when I will be tested” [for STDs] can be as easy and affordable as taking a home pregnancy test,” he said.